Flame-haired British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s presence in the pop firmament is a wonder of marshmallowy pliability. He grew his profile on the Jason Mraz–isms of 2011’s + and graduated to a light R&B swing on 2014’s x, though its enduring hit has been the drippy ballad “Thinking Out Loud,” which sounds like Bruno Mars fading out after a sip of hemlock. The singer took a year off after exhausting x’s lucrative well of singles, but that’s over now, as, in preparation for the forthcoming ÷, Sheeran has dropped off two new tracks, “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You.”
“Castle on the Hill” is the requisite rock jam. It builds on a tremolo guitar, a methodical kick drum, and verses evoking warm childhood memories to a chorus that turns up the guitars and runs Ed’s wistful vocal up an octave. It never quite … booms. “Castle” is One Direction’s “Story of My Life” with the heart scooped out, plodding stomp minus soul and swagger. The lyrical conceit — we were reckless as kids but the bros got married and don’t hang out anymore — is a bore as sold on a shrieking vocal and rote wording. (“Me and my friends have not thrown up in so long / Oh, how we’ve grown”?) “Castle” is a song about partying that doesn’t seem to know how to party.
And “Shape of You” is a song about sex that struggles to sell any. Here, Ed ditches past triumphs for the pleasures of the present, and pop-rock for fake dance hall. (It’s possible the Police coined “reggatta de blanc” a few decades too early … ) Lines that should be suave and smooth are wonky and dusty, though: “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go,” “You push and pull like a magnet,” “Last night you were in my room, and now my bed sheets smell like you.” Ed’s delivery is a few degrees too stiff and staccato to commute lust, and stiffness is a cardinal sin in dance hall. Sheeran told BBC 1 Radio the single was originally intended for Rihanna, and one wonders what it could’ve been, given the right voice.
A year is a long time in pop, and “Castle” and “Shape” seem to be playing catch-up with the oily radio sheen of late-2015 triumphs like Justin Bieber’s Purpose and One Direction’s Made in the A.M. instead of the daring individuality of pop in Ed’s year off. But Sheeran must do more than just show face with shiny new product now that the Twenty One Pilots guys have run off with his bro-pop crown, and Bruno Mars is back and circling the top of the U.S. and U.K. singles charts as radio’s resident jack-of-all-trades. Sheeran’s new cuts are hooky but also pretty dry, meat-and-potatoes genre experiments from a guy who, at his best, sneakily defies both the constructs of genre and a decidedly anti-pop chassis off the sheer strength of writing and performance. We were getting somewhere with him for a minute back in 2014. Is that over?