It’s not very often that one listen to a new song has me typing in a furious, feminist rage by the middle of the second chorus. But the eighth song of Ed Sheeran’s Divide, released Thursday, got me there.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving this album. Rather than sticking to whatever formula got the most radio play on Multiply and beating it to death (lookin’ at you, Jason Mraz), he’s continued to explore the several distinct but connected sounds that make him so satisfying to listen to. Songs like “Shape of You” indulge fully in his clear affection for hip-hop, while “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” spin Irish reel–inspired melodies that have you stomping your feet and smiling compulsively.
But while his sound has continued to grow and mature, Sheeran’s content seems mired in the same teenage angst that made him famous with Add, and then some. “Eraser,” the album’s opening track, finds Ed complaining once again about how hard it is to be rich, famous, and living the dream. “Castle on the Hill” is the slightly better version of that, though his vignettes of friends’ everyday English lives are unremarkable and clumsily worded.
Songs like “Happier” and “New Man” fall on the other end of Sheeran’s emotional spectrum: stewing over a relationship gone sour. “Happier” is a musically uninteresting ballad rescued only by a stunning vocal performance. Sheeran deals with the exquisite pain of still loving someone who has moved on, who is in a better place with their new relationship. This is all relatable and honest stuff. But the chorus is a little troubling: “Ain’t nobody hurt you like I hurt you, but ain’t nobody love you like I do.” What kind of messed-up tactic is it to acknowledge that you’ve hurt somebody — perhaps very badly — and then say that’s secondary to how much you loved them? The abusive kind of tactic, that’s what kind. Ask literally any victim of domestic violence.
But if “Happier” marks the depressive stage of Sheeran’s post-breakup grief, then “New Man” is its angry, wound-licking prequel. It opens with Sheeran rhythmically eviscerating an unknown man:
I heard he spent five hundred pounds on jeans
Goes to the gym at least six times a week
Wears boat shoes with no socks on his feet…
Tribal tattoos and he doesn’t know what it means
But I heard he makes you happy so that’s fine by me
This guy sounds like a huge douche — partly because he does douchey things, and partly, it seems, because he’s dating Sheeran’s ex. Hating on the new boyfriend can be a fun, invigorating activity, but soon Sheeran gives the same treatment to the woman who left him for this douche.
You were the type of girl who sat beside the water readin’
Eatin’ a packet of crisps, but you will never find you cheatin’
Now you’re eatin’ kale, hittin’ the gym, keepin’ up with Kylie and Kim
In the back of the club, kissin’ a boy that ain’t him
Sheeran accuses his girlfriend of a couple things: first, of eating kale; second, of cheating on her new boy toy. The fact that her updated lifestyle is chief among Sheeran’s complaints suggests that he’s more interested the woman he thinks his ex should be than her happiness or well-being. See, Ed’s ex used to be the Cool Girl™. She ate potato chips and read books and didn’t care what people thought about her (but was probably beautiful, a quality Sheeran makes no secret of valuing through the rest of his discography). But now, she cares about Kardashians and calories, which makes her a vain, superficial piece of work.
The clichés in this song are so tired they haven’t even tried to freshen themselves up. We have three characters: the conventionally attractive douchebag “with a bleached arsehole,” the Nice Guy™, and the Cool Girl™. The only character with any development is the girl, who used to be fun and quirky, but now that she’s dating a hot guy (and not Ed Sheeran) she’s just another basic bitch with a cell phone and hyperactive libido.
“Baby,” Sheeran croons at the end, “I’m not trying to ruin your week, but you act so differently when you’re with him.” Then he has the gall to remind her that she’s free to run back into his tattooed, skinny arms any time she wants.
I never expected sexual enlightenment from the guy who gave us, “I’m upping and I’m coming like I’m fucking in an elevator,” but this is some Ross Geller–level shit.
We’ve seen that Sheeran is gorgeous and delightful when he’s in love or falling. “Lego House” was cute, “Tenerife Sea” sublime, and “Thinking Out Loud” is going to be the most popular first-dance song at heterosexual weddings for at least another 10 years. But now that he seems to feel comfortable showing listeners his uglier side, we get to imagine what Sheeran is like in rejection and pain. It’s not pretty. And when he tries to woo us with lilting tender words in the very next track, it’s too late to believe in any sort of lasting affection or respect, in a love that comes without conditions or a breakup free of misogynistic spite. The fedora, if you will, is already out of the hat box.