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Credit: Greg Williams

Ed Sheeran starts out his new album on dangerous ground. It opens with “Eraser,” one of those “what did I get myself into?” complaints favored by insanely famous pop stars. “I chase the picture perfect life,” he sing-raps. “I think they painted it wrong.” The twist? Sheeran knows how sick-making stuff like this sounds to anyone who’s not a star. “Ain’t nobody wants to see you down in the dumps/because you’re living your dream and this should be fun,” he laments. “Guess it’s a stereotypical day for someone like me.”

That’s Sheeran in a nutshell: self-aware, self-deprecating and likable — to a point. On his third album, the singer-songwriter triples down on his marketable role as pop’s Mr. Nice Guy, singing songs of pining with an impish wink. In an age of boasting rappers and retaliatory R&B stars, Sheeran remains a sincere, old school singer-songwriter, presenting his pleas and wounds as both badges of honor and counter-programming lures.

At the same time, Sheeran’s new music has added a relative degree of swagger. The single “Castle On The Hill” ripples with U2-style pinging guitars, while “Shape Of You” undulates with an African beat and a clean marimba filigree, apt for perhaps the first Sheeran song to push sex as hard as love. Sheeran’s voice has been recorded to make it sound beefier as well. None of these alterations will challenge any fan of his two previous, major label albums, however. Neither will his latest round of slick and obvious melodies. Even the name of the album stays “on-brand,” extending his string of mathematical titles (Plus, Multiply, and now Divide).

If the familiarity of the album bodes well for its commercial success, key elements of Sheeran’s schtick don’t add up creatively. Despite the wrinkles of wit and flashes of detail in his writing, he’s horribly sentimental, idealizing love into anonymity in a song actually called “Perfect,” as well as one titled “How Would You Feel (Paean).” His ode to his departed grandmother, “Supermarket Flowers,” undermines the specificity of his feelings with lines as generic as “spread your wings as you go, when God takes you back.” Sheeran can also equivocate. In “What Do I Know,” he exploits his humility to avoid the risk of making even the mildest political statement.

Throughout the album, Sheeran’s vocals limit the impact of his writing. His rapping repeats a pattern created by someone else (Jason Mraz), and though his singing has flexibility, it’s devoid of quirks or distinguishing marks. It’s as blandly pumped and pretty as the hot guy he makes fun of in “New Man.”

The attitude Sheeran expresses in that song makes you want to root for him. He’s magnanimous even in defeat. But if the stance makes him sweet, it can’t give him much in the way of substance.

Key Tracks:
“Castle On The Hill”
Anyone who enjoys the classic, shimmering guitar patterns created by the Edge for U2 will warm to the axe work in this song.

“New Man”
Sheeran has fun putting down a romantic rival who wears $500 jeans, goes to the gym six times a week and bleaches his “arsehole.”