Ed Sheeran Returns With New Release “=”

by Jason Sobieski

Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and Grammy magnet Ed Sheeran is finally back in the saddle. On June 25th, 2021, Sheeran debuted his new single “Bad Habits” to whet the public’s appetite in anticipation of his upcoming fifth studio album, the symbolically titled =, which comes out October 29.

(Though "=" is not the most Google-friendly album title, it's the latest in Sheeran's mathematical series, following previous releases +, -, x, and ÷. Listeners have had to come up with their own nomenclature, nicknaming the albums with words, such as "Plus Sign" and "Divide."

Ed Sheeran, Equal

On YouTube, Sheeran’s official “Bad Habits” music video has already reached a whopping 131 million views since its June 25th publication (that’s over 2 million views a day). This shouldn’t surprise observers, however, considering Sheeran has sold more than 150 million records globally and was named “Artist of the Decade” in 2019 by the British Official Charts Company. His massive success has resulted in hundreds of nominations, many of which he has won, for official music awards worldwide.

The = album comes after a significant hiatus Sheeran took during the topsy-turvy year that was 2020. For such a giant of the pop scene, we will find out whether absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. After his successful 2019 album No.6 Collaborations Project, Sheeran went quiet until December 2020, when he sprung the surprise release “Afterglow” in December 2020. Predictably for a Sheeran single, it was a massive hit in the UK (peaking at #2) and several other countries, though it stalled at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” single portends what might be a more sober, personal, and reflective state of mind for this new father of one. Sheeran stated in a recent interview on Sirius XM, “…becoming a dad has really made me prioritize who I am, what I do…before Lyra was born…I was like ‘If my wife’s water breaks at any point I want to be able to drive her [to the hospital] and I don’t want to be sat in front of the TV with a glass of wine...’”

“I’ve lived my 20’s…I had a great time in my 20’s, and I don’t need to have any of that come into my daughter’s life now…I still love a party, I’m just in a different place now.”

The mature and sober self-analysis Sheeran shares does not seem to reflect any reduction in his dramatic songwriting. Presenting himself in his music video as a stylish but vampiric creature of the night and reflecting on what happens after sunset, we hear a description of fleeting realizations that many of us have shared at different times in our lives: “My bad habits lead to late nights endin’ alone / Conversations with a stranger I barely know / Swearin’ this will be the last, but it probably won’t / I got nothin’ left to lose, or use, or do.”

Sheeran, like many of us, has described a diverse set of musical influences, including Eminem, Eric Clapton, the Beatles, and Nizlopi. Upon reflection, it seems Sheeran is no less susceptible to temptation than those who have shaped his musical palette. Clapton battled a deadly heroin addiction, but opened up the Crossroads Centre for drug rehabilitation. Eminem’s notorious substance abuse contributed significantly to his controversial image, but made his recovery story all the more compelling. And there are few who are not familiar with the Beatles’ psychedelic experimentations, which also ultimately led George Harrison into sober spirituality. Sheeran himself informs fans now with “Bad Habits” that he is putting away his excessive tendencies in favor of a more balanced and mature lifestyle.

Sheeran does want to head off one likely assumption: that the changes in his life mean that his = release falls into the dreaded "dad album" category. It's informed by many changes in his life; yes, fatherhood is a big one, but not the only one.

“There’s only one tune on the album about being a dad," Sheeran says. "You know the Collaborations record was, like, written on tour in, like, three weeks but I’ve actually been making this record since ‘÷’ came out, for the last four years, and there’s been so many changes in my life…a really good friend passed away, I’ve gotten married, I’ve had a kid, I’ve bonded with my dad a bit more, I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained friends…a roller coaster of emotions and I’ve tried to capture it on individual songs and make this body of work that reflects [all that].”

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