When Ed Sheeran released his second album, x, in 2014, he ditched romantic balladry for edgier, hip-hop-flavored songcraft and darker lyrics that chronicled cheating exes and hard-partying ways. It also earned him his first Grammy, for the tender, soulful ballad “Thinking Out Loud,” which has become a modern-day standard for just about every wedding. Now, Sheeran is back with his first taste of new music, and judging by the two singles, the guitar-strumming folkie is evolving once again. “I really wanted to show two different sides to my music that I’m equally passionate about,” he said in a statement. That’s not something every artist can pull off, but with these two tunes, he sells it.
For “Castle on the Hill,” Sheeran teamed up with pop hitmaker Benny Blanco, who also produced his 2014 single “Don’t.” But where that tune served up a rhythmic, booty-shaking boom bap, “Castle” aims for something far grander: it’s a soaring guitar anthem, with Edge-style guitar heroics and sweetly nostalgic lyrics. “When I was six years old I broke my leg,” he croons. “I was running from my brother and his friends.” A couplet like that might sound cornball, only now there’s real grit in Sheeran’s voice — the massive chorus all but begs you to sing along.[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A66qlqxhEMpSHOzjRK4il0b" /]
Sheeran isn’t just aiming for the arena nosebleeds, though. “Shape of You” revives his intimate and hypnotic guitar looping, only this time it’s injected with light, trop-house flourishes like marimba. Perhaps not surprisingly, this tune was originally intended for Rihanna, and Sheeran ended up keeping it for himself. It was a wise move; in Sheeran’s hands, he shows he can still be hard-partying casanova himself, especially when he sings, “Take my hand, stop / Put Van The Man on the jukebox / And then we start to dance.””[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A0FE9t6xYkqWXU2ahLh6D8X" /]
“Castle on the Hill”: B+
“Shape of You”: B+