Ed Sheeran – ÷ (Divide) 2017 (Album Review)

Ed Sheeran, the musical dynamo who stands as the mainstream poster child for the singer/songwriter “white guy with an acoustic guitar” genre, has released his third major label full-length album, ÷. Ed is acclaimed for his diversified styles, from upbeat hip-hop to syrupy sweet love ballads to campfire singalongs. His earnest lyricism and authentic intimacy is one of the many reasons to love this amiable redhead.

So what does this latest long-player have to offer?

÷ is a typical Ed Sheeran album, a mixture of those various approaches and then some. But unfortunately, ÷ plays it extremely safe, although he does tiptoe outside of his comfort zone on a few moments. This is his most noticeably commercial record to date, which thus sacrifices risk-taking and is ultimately underwhelming. After 2014’s phenomenal ×, touring the planet, and taking a year off social media, we set the bar high for Ed. We expected something more personal, something introspective and astonishing, but ÷ really does not meet those standards. It’s the same-old-same-old but yet not as stunning and gripping as his earlier material. Of course, ÷ is good; it’s not a terrible release by any means, but it certainly is disappointing in multiple categories.

First, the lyrics. At times, the libretto of this work can be profound and ardent, but most cuts either display the same tired-out romantic clichés from his prior albums or empty, dull subjects that simply don’t attest to his growth as a person since the last time we heard from him on ×. “Galway Girl” exhibits a night out at the pub, kissing an Irish girl and eating Doritos, and while this is down-to-earth and practical, is this really the height of Ed’s songwriting? Or “New Man” where Ed gives details of a stereotypical gym jock, someone we could easily picture and possibly put a name to of a similar person we know, and while this song is descriptive, is it really anything more than just scratching the surface? Or similarly, “Shape of You,” the most sexually charged yet undoubtedly catchiest song in the lineup. Or on tracks like “Happier” where Ed expresses some maturity by accepting an ex lover has moved on with someone new, but yet he ruins it all by stating at the end of the song he’ll still “be waiting here for [them].” We do manage to see some progression and communion on pieces like “Castle on the Hill” which describes Ed’s childhood and struggles of growing up and apart from old friends. The bonus track “Save Myself” is probably the most intimate, reflective tune on the album, which begs the question as to why it was merely tacked on as a bonus track. “Supermarket Flowers” is also one of the most personal and genuine songs where Ed recounts true events that occurred in his life.

EDIT: Ed Sheeran said in an interview with Zane Lowe that the reason why “Save Myself” was not included as an a-side tune was because the album had “too many slow songs.” Thus, the label requested that he swap “New Man” and “Save Myself” in the initial listing, making “New Man” a standard track and “Save Myself” a bonus track. This is understandable, and one must also consider that alongside the poignant ballads, Ed is known for his hip-hop-directed cuts, which ÷ lacked in some ways. Ed also mentioned that due to the rise of online music streaming services, bonus tracks still garner their deserved attention to an extent.

The musical assortment of this release is apparent when solely discussing the album, but compared to Ed’s past catalog, it is for the most part stale and trite. Hip-hop cuts like “New Man” and “Eraser” offer Ed’s clunky rap sequences and poor production quality. Sappy amorous ballads like “Perfect” and “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” feel disingenuous and unrealistic. (Of course, this is assuredly subjective; some fans adore his hip-hop moments and/or his mushy romantic articles, but I personally have never found them interesting.) The overt love serenades, swelling with passion, virtually come across as just an attempt to pull at your heartstrings, which seems exploitative to an extent. (And trying to mimic the success of “Thinking Out Loud.”) The only tolerable romantic nocturne is “How Would You Feel (Paean),” which is embellished by the delectable piano accompaniment.

EDIT: Ed Sheeran said in an interview with Zane Lowe that his main motivation for writing “Perfect” was to prove that he could write fabulous love songs on his own and outdo “Thinking Out Loud,” which he wrote with Amy Wadge. This bolsters my feelings of insincerity in Ed’s latest songwriting.

However, pieces like “Castle on the Hill” and “Galway Girl” do illustrate some sonic variation not typically discovered on his previous albums. (With the exception of the stellar “English Rose” from ×, which is quite overlooked if you ask me.) “Castle on the Hill” follows in the bombastic vein of a Mumford & Sons-esque stadium epic, something new for Ed. “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” find Ed exploring his near Celtic background and fondness for Ireland with an Irish band, something that truly stands out on this full-length. Bonus tracks like “Barcelona” and “Bibia Be Ye Ye” show him placing a toe outside his comfort zone with a more Latin leaning vibe, and he even roughly speaks Spanish on the former and Twi on the latter! Again, it’s a shame these tunes were attached as bonus material because it is the only minor evidence and incorporation of Ed’s travels across the globe. The impassioned love divertissements do offer some symphonic diversity with their orchestral inflections and female backing vocals, like on the soulful “Dive,” and Ed is cementing a somewhat unique sound with these timbres.

The easy accessibility and listenability of ÷ causes it to suffer in some ways. Ed’s pop sensibility seemingly dumbs down his trademark emotional contemplation and self-examination to appeal to a larger audience. The lyrics of this album plainly don’t punch the listener in the gut like his preceding projects did. He immolates auricular risk-taking over his traditional familiarity and generic acoustic timbre which has grown threadbare throughout his career. ÷ is not entirely atrocious or abominable by any degree, but it does not scrape the expectations we had set for him after his antecedent release, hiatus, and worldwide excursions. ÷ warrants a solid 6/10 for its lack of progression and variety, and I’ll personally only be revisiting a small handful of songs. (As opposed to my constant return to his full previous records!)

What are your thoughts on ÷? Let us know in the comments below!

  • Best songs: “Castle on the Hill,” “Save Myself,” “Dive,” “Supermarket Flowers,” “How Would You Feel (Paean)”
  • Worst songs: “Happier,” “New Man,” “Galway Girl,” “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here”
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Panic! at the Disco – Death of a Bachelor 2016 (Album Review)

Man, this review has been a long time coming. Panic! at the Disco’s 2016 album Death of a Bachelor will be one year old next month, so we thought we might as well get around to reviewing it before then. Panic! at the Disco has been dwindled down to solely frontman Brendon Urie, a Las Vegas native who draws influences from his city and musical legends, such as Queen and Frank Sinatra. Panic! has taken on many different personas throughout the past decade-long career, shifting styles with every new album release from pop rock to The Beatles-inspired folk pop to Vaudeville to electronica. Panic! has done it all, but now with Urie remaining as the only true member, how does Death of a Bachelor shape up?

Well, Death of a Bachelor is like a bit of everything, which sounds great but not really. Every song sounds different, which I can commend Urie for incorporating variety, but it doesn’t make for an easy listen when the style is constantly transitioning. Death of a Bachelor is more of a collection of songs, and the songs are mostly decent on their own, but it’s not a cohesive, flowing record by any means. Overall, the full-length is plainly disheveled and does not age well over time. Honestly, the more I listen to this album, the more I never want to play it again.

Panic! has never had a distinct style, so for Death of a Bachelor to sound different than all their past projects is not a surprise. But the problem is that Panic!’s previous long-players have all had a distinct style of their own, whereas Death of a Bachelor is a messy amalgam of so many contrasting types. There isn’t one clear-cut genre I can label this album with. It’s not that I’m “afraid of difference and nonconformity” or “afraid of integrating various musical fashions;” it’s more that this album is a headache to listen through due to its incoherence and discord.

Look, like I said, the songs are generally pretty alright on their own, and ideally, Urie should’ve taken one or two similar sounding songs and expanded upon their particular style to create the album instead of mingling vastly differing musical categories. Nonetheless, even most of the songs on Death of a Bachelor have problems of their own. (Not to mention the terrible marketing behind issuing the full-length. Seriously, 6 out of 11 songs were pre-released in some way, meaning only 5 songs were actually delivered on the release date.)

Of course, there’s also a lot of other problems with Death of a Bachelor, (and some good things,) so let’s just take this track by track. The album opens with “Victorious,” an upbeat, entertaining party song. The production of this piece, (and most of the album,) is done extremely well, except the guitars seem very muted. Panic! always featured stellar guitar work, but since 2013’s album Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, which leaned heavily on electronic elements, the guitars have become more and more in the background with every new publication. “Victorious” is simply a feel-good party anthem, and there isn’t much to dig into in terms of lyrical content. The vocal melodies on this song are, well, annoying? Urie has always been one of the better singers in the pop rock/emo alternative scene, and now as the only remaining member of Panic!, he seems to feel inclined to show off his operatic talent even more. However, when he aims to hit pitches in the upper register, it just kinda… hurts to listen to. I will applaud him for his skill, and also his musical abilities considering he supposedly accomplished all the instrumental efforts on this album himself, but sometimes the vocal refrains can be nerve-wracking and aggravating over time.

The next tune “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” is another party canticle, but more toned down musically in terms of flair and glamour. Again, there isn’t much to comment on with such straightforward libretto, but sorry, I am gonna rip to shreds the “Rock Lobster” sampling. You know, it seems as if Brendon has been following a little too closely in the footsteps of his musical father-figure Fall Out Boy since 2013 when the Chicago band returned from their hiatus. Well, he’s always been under their wing since signing on to Pete Wentz’s record label in 2004, but now in recent years, the affinity and relative imitation has been more prevalent than ever. Brendon turned to the same producer of Fall Out Boy’s 2013 Save Rock and Roll to operate on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, resulting in strikingly identical sounding records, and now “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” incorporates the famous guitar riff from The B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” similar to Fall Out Boy’s implementation of The Munsters’ theme song in their hit “Uma Thurman.” Brendon also employed Jake Sinclair to help produce Death of a Bachelor, which unsurprisingly produced Fall Out Boy’s 2015 album, American Beauty/American Psycho. He also joined on board with Crush Management, the team behind Fall Out Boy. Come on, Brendon, you could at least be a bit more original…?

Anyway, the third piece on the album is “Hallelujah,” which was the first single released back in April of 2015. Similar to “Victorious,” “Hallelujah” does not age well and becomes irritating over time. Brendon focuses too much on showing off his vocal talent, resulting in a song that barely hits the 3-minute mark because he basically left out an entire chorus. The stripped-down closing tag should have been the pinnacle of the tune as the bridge section, but since it’s just thrown on at the end, it’s borderline forgettable and doesn’t pack the punch that it had the potential to. “Hallelujah” does actually stand out as the first decent song on the album so far in terms of lyricism and features a robust horn department. While Urie does coalesce horns all throughout the album, the styles in which they are utilized are exceedingly different.

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“Emperor’s New Clothes” is the fourth track and introduces computerized components even more, from the opening synthetic melody to the distorted voice inflections. The songwriting echoes Brendon’s rise to fame and now taking over the band name entirely for himself, hinting that Death of a Bachelor is basically “the end of eras,” i.e. Panic! before becoming Brendon’s solo career. (We’ll talk more about that later.) “Emperor’s New Clothes” also displays the horn section and hey, sometimes you can actually hear the guitars! However, the vocal performance is again bothersome and gloaty. The high notes are virtually unnecessary and exasperating. As much as I want to love this track, the lyrics ultimately turn me off personally considering how conceited Brendon comes across. (We’ll also talk more about that later as well.)

Remember when Brendon described “Death of a Bachelor” as a mix of Beyoncé and Frank Sinatra? Yeah, I do too, and I was excited, but this song is disappointing. The production quality is great and all, but the problem here is literally just Brendon Urie. I can’t stand the way he sings this song, it’s so over-the-top and bombastic. The same cancer has been infecting this entire album so far: the vocal melodies are simply annoying. I really want to like these songs, but Brendon’s choral performances just make me want to turn it off and delete it from my library. How much more conceited can you be with, “When you think of me/Am I the best you’ve ever had?” I thought we left this immature egotism in A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which was slightly understandable in that time period because he wasn’t nearly 30 years old. Jesus, all I can say when I listen to “Death of a Bachelor” is, “Can you shut up?” Skip.

“Crazy = Genius” is the sixth piece on the record and is characterized by achingly simple guitar melodies but also an ear-catching horn section. This tune is the key swing article of Death of a Bachelor, which should have also been expanded upon alongside the style of “Hallelujah.” (If he had made a record based off these two songs, it might actually be prudent and listenable.) The lyricism of “Crazy = Genius” is moderately introspective when mentioning The Beach Boys’s Mike Love, Dennis, and Brian Wilson. Brian was the “genius” behind the ’60s sensation while Mike Love was against Wilson’s more innovative approaches. Yet, appropriately, Urie says he’ll “never be Dennis Wilson,” who began a solo career to continue the “beautiful, happy, spiritual music” The Beach Boys had originally created. Brendon says that “if crazy equals genius, then I’m a fucking arsonist, I’m a rocket scientist,” meaning he’s essentially insane enough to be a genius. Of course, that’s debatable considering how disarrayed this latest record is.

The seventh track is “LA Devotee,” which I surprisingly don’t have many issues with. “LA Devotee” is quite possibly the best piece on Death of a Bachelor, and even though the higher notes displayed in the chorus after the key change are a bit over Urie’s head, he peculiarly pulls them off exceptionally well. The song is an enjoyable and catchy ode to the Los Angeles city life with excellent songwriting in the lyrical department and balance of the organic instrumentation (brass section) with the electronic aspects. “LA Devotee” creates imagery of neon lights and desert skies, and this is exactly what we’ve been expecting from Death of a Bachelor. While Brendon discusses his recent marriage and “settling down” in many of the songs, this record also largely revolves around the party scene of the city, similar to “Vegas Lights” from its predecessor. “LA Devotee” stands as a testament to Urie’s descriptive lyricism and newfound spirit for having a night out on the town.

The next song, “Golden Days,” details the discovery of old Polaroids, allowing Brendon to examine the concept of time and aging. The verses of “Golden Days” are musically ominous and portentous, but the chorus is exciting and provocative, minus the vexatiously prolonged syllables of, “Golden days, golden days,” being repeated over and over. The theme of this piece is ultimately carpe diem, seizing the current moment and having fun in order to reminisce fondly on in the future. “Golden Days” is a revolt against “growing older” and is decisively one of the better tracks on the album, but it just doesn’t fit. Like I said, Death of a Bachelor is more of a collection of songs than a well-rounded record because “Golden Days,” for example, doesn’t flow with the jazzy vibe displayed earlier. Yes, it’s a decent song, but not a decent addition to the lineup so far.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty” is enjoyable for its musicality with the blend of electronic ingredients and more natural apparatus, but the lyrical content is extremely confusing. Brendon, I gotta know, what the heck are you talking about? At first, I thought this song could be about how the original members of Panic! have all departed except Urie, (namely in the first verse,) but the second part of the first verse makes just about zero sense when coupled with the beginning part. Then the chorus kicks in, which doesn’t line up with either of the ideas that have been introduced so far. The second verse completes the theme highlighted in the first part of the first verse, but then the bridge does nothing else to complement it even further. I can commend “The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty” for its musical prospect, but the coherence of the actual songwriting is undetected.

The tenth song, “House of Memories,” is similar to “Golden Days” because it doesn’t fit! It’s a fabulous tune, from the earnest lyricism to the balance of instrumentation, except for Brendon’s straining vocals in the bridge. But “House of Memories” just can’t find a home on this record dominated by grandiloquence and jazz influences. “House of Memories” does begin to slow down the full-length and offers a reflective look at a conflicted writer torn between loving their current partner and finding themselves stuck on past sweethearts, painting the idea that he’s nearly afraid to get close in fear of being heartbroken yet again. This song is another one of the better tracks on Death of a Bachelor, but still certainly not Urie’s best work.

And finally, “Impossible Year” wraps up the album, but on a rather dismal note. While Urie does try to sell this track as emotional and heartfelt, it’s just a sad vocal imitation of Sinatra and incoherent lyrics. Honestly, “Impossible Year” falls flat on its face and is less than memorable. Urie’s lower octave is obviously not capable of such eloquence and simulation when he seems to lose touch with the deeper pitches. The musicality is a sudden turn that the album could have used more of to set up this abrupt transition, maybe another slower piano-based track earlier on would have helped buoyed this tune along instead of allowing it to just fall off into the pits of being forgettable and unexpected. The lyrics are more than likely outlining the withdrawing of past band members, considering the lines, “There’s no you and me/This impossible year/Only heartache and heartbreak,” are probably not illustrating Urie’s recent marriage. But his pretension undervalues the poignant candor of such lyrics by the piece simply acting as Brendon’s deficient stab at emulating Frank Sinatra.

Overall, Death of a Bachelor scores a 6/10. It’s not terrible, but it’s rudely disappointing. I did find myself coming back to a handful of these songs, but individually because they don’t jive well together, and I do tend to get some of the more enjoyable melodies stuck in my head. Brendon seems to focus too much on showing off his vocal ability rather than writing a coherent, well-rounded record. Look, Brendon, you’ll never be Frank Sinatra or Freddie Mercury. (That poor cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” gave me a disease.) If you wanna make a name for yourself, try pushing new boundaries and setting your own trends instead of ripping off other artists. *cough* Fall Out Boy. *cough*

Urie has a niche that works for him, and as much as I can respect artists stepping outside their comfort zones and trying new things, it just didn’t work on Death of a Bachelor. Brendon should plainly go solo and drop the Panic! name so his new albums can’t be compared to Panic!’s past work. I feel like I would have been somewhat more receptive or at least more understanding of it if it had been published as a solo project. It still would’ve have been a messy record, but at least I wouldn’t be able to say it’s not “a good Panic! album” because there is a standard carried with their name. It shows that Brendon is basically using the band’s name for recognition to garner more profit and publicity. For a guy who is so painfully full of himself, you would think he’d be more than happy to market his own name! My main issue with this record and Urie himself is just that: his obnoxious ego. (I mean, seriously, his Twitter bio says “35% talent, 65% water.” Like, do we really need a popular performer to rub his talent in our faces all the time?) It’s why most of the melodies on this album suffered, because Brendon was too concentrated on boasting his vocal skills than actually making something that sounds pleasant to the ears. Also, former bassist Dallon Weekes did not contribute creatively on Death of a Bachelor at all and was demoted solely to a touring member, which is essentially Brendon saying, “I want to do this record all by myself. It’s gonna be The Brendon Urie Show. I want it my way.” (No Sinatra pun intended.) So if he wanted this record to be his so badly, why didn’t he just begin a solo career with it? Sorry, Brendon, your attempt to be the “jazzy Fall Out Boy” is not a Panic! album in my book, and it’s the weakest full-length in their discography to date.

Hopefully Brendon’s and his fanbase’s inability to accept criticism (click here) won’t be lavished upon this review. I want to end this post with this: I am a huge Panic! at the Disco fan, mainly due to their first four long-players, but Death of a Bachelor really rubbed me the wrong way. I want to love this album, I really do, and I really tried, but it’s just not working for me personally. I’ll keep spinning their earlier records for as long as I can, but I just can’t bring myself to love this latest addition. I have hope that Brendon’s next project can make a comeback, however.

What do you think of Death of a Bachelor? Let us hear it in the comments below!

  • Best songs: “LA Devotee,” “House of Memories,” “Golden Days”
  • Worst songs: “Death of a Bachelor,” “Impossible Year,” “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time”