Bastille – Doom Days, 2019 (Album Review)

If you’d like to watch/listen to this review, check out the YouTube video here!

Bastille broke into the mainstream with their 2013 hit “Pompeii” from the band’s debut LP Bad Blood, a record that offered indie pop with an alternative tinge. The UK band followed it up with Wild World, their sophomore effort released in 2016. There was more distortion, more social commentary, and, well, more indie pop rock… Another three years passed and Bastille returned with Doom Days, marketed as a concept album about a rowdy party during the apocalypse, filled with emotional ups and downs.

Personally, Bastille never really caught my eye. I recall hearing “Pompeii” on pop radio back in the day, but I barely even noticed when they dropped Wild World in 2016. I named that album one of the most overrated albums of 2016 in my year-end list and wrote off the band as nothing more than a mainstream “alternative” act plying for a pop-friendly sound.

The band’s debut Bad Blood felt both overpolished and yet underproduced sonically. The songs were either too gargantuan in scale or uninteresting snoozefests, either too washed out in the mixing or so barebones that they felt like demo tracks. Fans hyped the lyrics up as being so deep and soulful, but I found it to be somewhat overly pretentious and basic.

I can’t blame Bastille for their approach to this record though. In 2012 and 2013, a number of alternative-leaning bands were crossing over in pop audiences with this organic, authentic style, both instrumentally and lyrically, and bombastic, grandiose anthems. Take a look at Imagine Dragons with big hits like “It’s Time” or “Demons,” Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound,” Fun.’s “Some Nights” or “We Are Young,” The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” Passion Pit’s “Take a Walk,” or… well, you get the point. The most similar contender for comparison to Bad Blood would be Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions; the folky attitude, larger-than-life choruses, classic instrumentation with some electronic flair mixed in, the albums are practically long-lost brothers. So sure, I can see why Bastille fit into this mold, but man, was it trite as hell.

Wild World felt like we were taking one step forward and two steps back. Yes, the ripping guitars on numerous cuts were strongly welcomed, the sound suited the band fairly well. But the production was ear-grating with odd background noises or snare timbres or backing vocals. The choruses came across as lazily written since most of them were just one or two lines repeated over and over again, and the flimsy sociopolitical commentary was rather bland and surface-level. And to top it all off, the majority of the songs all sounded the same! I couldn’t tell the first, like, 16 tracks apart. Wait, shit, that’s the whole LP. The album was forgettable after about one listen, which reminds me of another album with a similar title… *cough* Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons. Oh, hey, another band that tried to make a “rock” record that turned out to be boring and forgettable! Really, it says something when the only tracks I found myself genuinely enjoying on Wild World happened to be the bonus tracks.

Now I will say this: Bad Blood and Wild World are not bad albums. I do believe they are a bit overrated, but they are not completely awful outings. I might not have been able to get behind the hype but to each their own. So you can bet I was surprised after my first listen of Doom Days. I… I actually… enjoyed it? Me? Being fond of a Bastille album? Yes, it’s true. I like Doom Days. It took a minute to grow on me, but I do indeed like it. Maybe not love, but I like it. Maybe it’s because I had low expectations going in, but I like it. I guess now we should actually talk about this latest record rather than all the other albums in the band’s catalog.

When I saw that Bastille was gearing up for a new full-length by releasing the lead single “Quarter Past Midnight,” I remember not being impressed. I didn’t think much of it, and I surely was not invested in their collaboration with M********o on “Happier.” But after Doom Days was officially released, I decided to give it a chance, maybe just for a good laugh. I was lukewarm after the first spin, but with each listen I grew more enamored with the record. At first I didn’t buy into the idea of Doom Days being a concept album; it didn’t feel like there was much of a narrative, just some recurring themes and motifs intertwined throughout the tracklisting. Now I see the vision, and though I still think it’s a stretch to call it a proper concept album, I can see why the band believes it.

Should we get the negatives out of the way first so we can end this review on a happy note, just like this album? While Bastille has dialed back on the trying-too-hard-to-be-deep writing, there are still some moments throughout the record where the band is attempting to sell the idea at hand as being so big and emotional when it’s really not that deep. Ooh, apocalypse! Ahh, relationships! Err, something like that…

Also, the slower songs on Doom Days all crescendo into these big endings, and while it’s nice that we get to catch our breath before being catapulted into another colossal chorus, I feel like the roster just needed one song, just one slow, quiet song, to really give the listening experience a bit of contrast. “Those Nights” is a contemplative glance at how we’re all just craving some love during these difficult times. The power ballad piano chords are nicely executed, but the song ends with this left-field dubstep-esque breakdown? It feels somewhat out of place.

Speaking of places, “Another Place” is a rather EDM-inspired tune, along with “Million Pieces.” Perhaps Bastille was trying to appeal to the listeners they gained from “Happier” or something. These tracks are enjoyable enough and do add some different flavors to the record, but some strange production choices pop up here and there, like the repetitive whooping in the background of the “drop” on “Million Pieces,” or the over-sanitized vocals on “Another Place,” which also has some weird background noises. “Joy,” one of the best numbers on the album, is plagued by this unnerving squeaky sound that rears its head on the upbeats during the chorus. And a handful of songs feature intriguing guitar riffs that are unfortunately too quiet or get lost under the percussion or walls of sound. I typically have a few gripes when alternative bands incorporate more synthesized elements into their style, but I don’t necessarily mind Bastille shooting for a more dance-influenced, electropop sound. They’ve always had it buried in their DNA since Bad Blood, so I believe this is a natural progression for them as artists. I do wish, however, that this album featured some more interesting or prominent bass grooves.

Lyrically, there are a few odd pop culture references thrown in, sometimes ones that kind of ruin the moment. The title track “Doom Days” starts off with the line “There must be something in the Kool-Aid” and later references Peter Pan in the most cringey way possible. Peter Pan is slightly pointed to again on “The Waves” when Dan Smith sings “We never, never give up on the lost boy life,” which is thankfully a more tolerable and broad interpolation. Stanley Kubrick is mentioned on the second tune “Bad Decisions,” which is probably just flying over my head because I can’t quite figure out why it exists. (Help?) The title track also seems to cram way too much in too little time; it’s the shortest track on the album and yet seems to pile on the most societal commentary over a grimace-worthy trap beat.

Overall, these drawbacks are for the most part minor nitpicks that don’t entirely ruin the album for me. They don’t detract from the listening experience too heavily and I can let most of them slide because, well, I admittedly still don’t have incredibly high expectations for Bastille.

On the positive side, there are a lot of things I admire about Doom Days. Dan Smith has greatly improved his vocals (seriously, go listen to Bad Blood and compare it to Doom Days), and his range is impressively expansive, which he flaunts on cuts like “Joy” and “Bad Decisions.” The record only consists of 11 standard tracks and two bonus tracks, vastly shortened from the 19 total tracks that comprised Wild World. This shorter run-time allows less room for mistakes or for songs to sound too samey, and the album doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on for too long.

I appreciate the cohesion between tracks, which I guess is relatively required for a concept album. But the nuances are what tie things together. The background vocals near the end of “4AM” sing the lyrics of the bridge from the opening track (“I can’t remember…”), as well as the background vocals earlier in the song (“Might be a walking disaster”) that reference the closing track. “Those Nights” ends with a hazy “From my brain,” which leads into “Joy” where the lyrics are the bridge’s refrain.

Of course, the idea of living in “the doom days” is strung throughout the LP. The band claims they wanted this record to emit a sense of escapism, powering through dark times by partying your ass off and winding up in some interesting interpersonal situations. The title track delivers some perspective on how people have become so dependent on their phones, how we can’t tell what is real or fake anymore, how the planet is being torn to pieces and yet people deny it, so forth and so on. So much is mashed into the shortest tune on the record, which I feel doesn’t totally allow the notions to fully breathe or feel fleshed out. Nonetheless, the perception that we’re all so addicted to phone screens is ironically contradicted, or perhaps driven home, on the album’s closer “Joy” where the narrator of the track solely finds fulfillment from the phone call of a lover. This acceptance of how consumed in technology we have become is rather tastefully and subtly accomplished through this juxtaposition.

The fervent “Million Pieces” expresses how heartbreaking the world has become. “The king’s a clown,” “we’re too far gone,” “no one is loving,” etc. The second verse touches upon that idea of escapism again, saying “Just drink, fuck, dance right through disaster,” which could probably double as the tagline for Doom Days as a whole. While the lyrics are moderately vague, “Million Pieces” still effectively communicates the despair tormenting our current social climate, wrapping it up in a danceable, poppy beat.

Instrumentally, Doom Days features a lot of stellar piano melodies, most noticeable on tracks like “Quarter Past Midnight,” “Divide,” and “Nocturnal Creatures.” There are also a handful of string sections speckled throughout the record. This authentic instrumentation mixed in with the electronic aspects creates a modern yet original sound, which is executed a hundred times better on Doom Days than on its predecessor.

Gospel choir chorales are also sprinkled into the mix, which truly finishes the album off expertly on “Joy.” Bastille has always incorporated vocal harmonies into their music, whether in the front of the mix or pushed to the background, but here on Doom Days, the gospel influence is turned up to 11. On “Joy” specifically, the choral refrains wrap a holy, sunshiney, and, well, joyous sentiment around the tune. It feels as though “Joy” would have been incomplete without the choir. “The Waves” is also nicely complemented by the choral voices that add a sense of grandeur and enthusiasm to the track.

All in all, my reasons for enjoying Doom Days are rather personal. There is nothing objectively good or bad about this album, as to be expected with any piece of art. It’s subjective. I would sum up Doom Days as mediocre indie pop at its best, but for some reason I still like it. The compositions presented on this record are, for the most part, well done. It’s an entertaining pop album that’s easy to throw on and listen to. You could possibly get something deep or emotive out of it, but Bastille is not trying too hard to shove anything down your throat or craft some groundbreaking philosophical statement. The sound of the record will obviously not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like pop, electropop, indie pop, or lighter alternative music, this album might suit your taste. I’m sure you could toss it into the category of “millennial pop” given its lyrical topics and musical timbre, but that’s all it’s aiming to be. Sometimes less is more, and Bastille proves that on Doom Days with the shorter tracklisting, tighter production, and ordinary but still affective lyricism.

Overall, I think Doom Days is Bastille’s best album to date, and while it is still flawed and at times uninteresting, it’s serviceable enough. I’m rating it a 7/10 …for now. That’s subject to change as the year goes on, but for the time being, I’ll be dancing my way through the doom days.

Let me know what you think of Doom Days down in the comments below!


All Time Low – Last Young Renegade, 2017 (Album Review)

All Time Low is regarded as one of the most  monumental pop rock/pop punk bands of the 21st century, beginning their music career in 2003 and consistently releasing records since then. Through label changes and stylistic shifts, the four-piece from Baltimore has managed to make quite the name for themselves and garner a large, devoted fanbase over the years. However, 2017’s polarizing Last Young Renegade seemed off-putting for many of their longtime listeners. So how does it really shape up? Let’s (finally) dive into the latest long-player from All Time Low.

If you’ve been keeping up with my album reviews, you know that I take quite a while to get around to covering some releases, like 5 Seconds of Summer’s Sounds Good, Feels Good or Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor. I allow myself plenty of time to form a coherent, grounded opinion on these albums because that’s what the art deserves. And I’m really glad I waited to review Last Young Renegade.

I’ll be honest, I did NOT like this album when it came out. I considered it their weakest project to date and only appreciated about two songs. I can now firmly say that I’ve genuinely come around and gained a new perspective on this LP, and I’m finally ready to share my full opinion. (Fun drinking game: take a shot every time I say “synth.”)

Last Young Renegade is All Time Low’s seventh studio album and first release after signing to Fueled By Ramen in 2016 (2015?), which spelled trouble for many fans. Fueled By Ramen has established a reputation in recent years for polishing up their rock outfits in favor of a sleek radio-friendly pop sound. It also seemed strange for All Time Low to depart Hopeless Records which they called home for the majority of their career. (They even included Hopeless in their song lyrics. See: “So Long, Soldier” from 2012’s Don’t Panic.) However, Fueled By Ramen was probably the most predictable place for the four-piece to sign with considering the label’s roster and association with other mainstream pop rock acts, like Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is…, Cobra Starship, Twenty One Pilots, and Yellowcard, just to name a few. The band claims that they felt more free to be themselves and explore new territories with Fueled By Ramen, that the label wasn’t holding them back or forcing them to sound a certain way. That’s disputable… But we’ll get more into that later.

So once the band dropped “Dirty Laundry” as the lead single for their upcoming record Last Young Renegade, it proved to be one of the most divisive tracks in their discography. Many fans began blaming Fueled By Ramen for the stylistic change and comparing the label shift to when All Time Low signed with Interscope to release Dirty Work, which is generally regarded as the “worst” album in their catalog. I personally didn’t enjoy “Dirty Laundry” at first, besides the rock-infused final chorus, because it felt like such a stark departure from their previous album.

Over a year later, I can say I feel differently. 2015’s Future Hearts put All Time Low at a crossroads: stick with this amazingly well-balanced brand of pop rock or move in a new direction. I love Future Hearts; it’s one of my favorite albums from the group and I think the sound worked extremely well for them. They captured both rock fans and pop fans while still maintaining their edginess, fun, and personality, crafting a record that is undeniably catchy, entertaining, and worth countless replays. But I knew they couldn’t stick with the same tone forever, and change makes most of us apprehensive. When any artist mixes up their trademark approach, it’s typically unwelcome at first. But we can’t expect a band that’s been around for so long to keep making the same record over and over, especially with how much the members have grown and matured over the years. People change and their art changes with them.

At first, Last Young Renegade seemed like a change for the worse — the band was devolving, taking steps backwards, heading in the wrong direction. Nine months later, I can say that Last Young Renegade is a natural progression for All Time Low, and a good one at that. This record is what The Summer Set’s Stories For Monday would have sounded like if it were darker, less optimistic, and less focused on the impending indefinite hiatus of the band. While Last Young Renegade is overall a solid project, it still has its flaws. Frontman Alex Gaskarth (picture is of guitarist Jack Barakat) routinely touted the record as a “concept album,” which, I mean, I guess…? To an extent? He claims the character on the album artwork is utilized as a way to bundle all the ideas together, but I don’t really think there’s a cohesive storyline throughout the tracks.

However, there is certainly thematic and stylistic cohesion. Last Young Renegade revolves around tales of heartbreak, nostalgia, and emotional struggles while still offering a hopeful outlook on the road ahead, and these notions are buoyed along all throughout the LP. However, I think the tracklisting could have been a bit more thought-out; “Good Times” probably should have been pushed down on the program in order to really pack that teary-eyed, bittersweet punch. It felt fairly jarring to go from a string of songs about heartache and loss to a rosy reflection on youthful triumphs and memories. Nonetheless, Last Young Renegade as a whole is equally drenched in euphoric nostalgia and emotional turmoil so there are definitely some major motifs to tie everything together. The pop rock timbre is complemented by experimental synths and atmosphere, although the production does have its fair share of pitfalls, like feeling too sterile and over-polished at times. To really examine this more in-depth, let’s jump into the full-length track-by-track.

The album opens up with the title track “Last Young Renegade.” Accomplished by sentimental reminiscence and Gaskarth’s descriptive songwriting, this tune sets up the elemental vibe for the album: glistening pop rock dazzled with synthetic melodies and moody ambience. “Last Young Renegade” is evidence of that natural progression from Future Hearts by combining smooth pop ingredients with a rock-leaning vantage. This track is probably the strongest and most enjoyable on the record, rightfully deserving of repeated listens and chanted choruses.

The second track “Drugs & Candy” offers a darker side to the new style by exploring the struggles of toxic relationships and introducing a more sinister instrumental sound. You can pick up on the slightest inflection of an acoustic guitar buried in the mix if you listen closely enough, but it quickly fades during the explosive chorus in favor of underlying electronic components and distorted guitars. However, the guitars (all throughout this record!) seem insatiably washed-out and overly pristine. It’s a bit too muted coming from the pop punk All Time Low we know and love, but again, this is showcasing the band moving in a new direction. As long as I tune out how the four-piece used to sound and go into Last Young Renegade with a clear and open mind, it’s really not that harrowing. I know what the band is capable of but I have to remind myself that they can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. That being said, “Drugs & Candy” is actually quite likable! It’s adequately catchy, and Alex’s vocals get a bit more coarse in the denouement of the piece. It’s nothing groundbreaking but still serviceable enough.

Next on the bill is “Dirty Laundry,” decisively the most controversial track of Last Young Renegade. This song has a slow build, creating a foreboding and mysterious atmosphere achieved by reverb-heavy, laundered guitars, mellow percussion, and glossy vocal effects. The instrumentation seems somewhat artificial and ersatz, and the guitars again feel painfully subdue. The bridge section kicks in, reining in a more biting guitar timbre and eventually combusting into the closing chorus which displays All Time Low recrudescing to their signature pop rock intonation. “Dirty Laundry” overall is a steady, brooding experience, but is the payoff truly worth the wait? Most fans probably would have rather had the entire song sound like the final refrain and done away with the more hazy, simulated build-up. For me personally, I don’t mind the song; the lyrics are decent and the melody isn’t too bad. It’s certainly not my favorite by any means but I still appreciate it and what the band was aiming to do.

“Good Times” is the next article on the album, outlined by computerized synth melodies and pulsing cadences in order to craft a nostalgic attitude to complement the retrospective libretto. Similar to “Drugs & Candy,” a faint acoustic guitar is pushed to the back of the mix, only receiving its time to shine for a split second in each chorus. The amplified guitar melodies are achingly simplistic as the song depends more ardently on the vocal and synthetic diapasons to lead the tune. The lyricism is defined by pictorial imagery and poignant recollection of youthful jubilation, tugging at the heartstrings of the listener. “Good Times” doesn’t exactly affect me on any deeper level, but I acknowledge that it’s an enjoyable track nonetheless. I think it could have been lowered on the tracklisting to effectively deliver its touching demeanor considering it is preceded by multiple songs detailing relationship struggles, giving the listener whiplash moving from those darker tones to a more upbeat one. The band released an “orchestral arrangement” of the tune which really isn’t anything exciting. They changed the lyrics from “middle fingers up” to “turn the music up,” which seems rather strange for All Time Low. They’ve said f**k in their songs before, and the CD booklet for Nothing Personal featured a photo of them with their middle fingers up. I’m not sure if they were trying to tone down the angst to fit the more stripped-down version (which is fairly uncharacteristic of them) or if Fueled By Ramen possibly told them to do so. However, the “orchestral arrangement” isn’t officially part of Last Young Renegade, so we won’t worry about it too much.

Next up is “Nice2KnoU,” which, despite its cringey stylized title, is a pretty great track. It’s more continuation of that natural progression sonically, and the lyrics seem to touch upon this as well, proclaiming, “We can’t go back to yesterday.” This line, of course, is up for interpretation, but in the context of All Time Low’s musical career, this may be evidence of them waving goodbye to their previous fashions. “Nice2KnoU” is construed by raucous guitars and urgent drumming, bringing back that edginess the band seemingly left behind on Future Hearts. I don’t have too many complaints about this track, though the “oh-oh” chanting in the background can grow a bit grating over time.

“Life of the Party” is next on the list, characterized by synthetic refrains and vehement walls of sound while Gaskarth discusses the hardships of losing yourself in tides of fame and the party scene. (No pun intended.) The bombastic chorus is bound to get stuck in your head, and the vocal effects layered on Gaskarth’s voice are more stylistic, not correctional. “Life of the Party” efficiently captures what the band set out to accomplish on Last Young Renegade: animated pop rock tracks that meld the best parts of electro-pop and rock along with catchy melodies and introspective lyricism. It’s anthemic and well-rounded, and while I still think the guitars could be more pronounced, I don’t detect many negative things to extract from “Life of the Party.”

The eighth number titled “Nightmares” is admittedly one of the more mediocre tunes on the record. It opens with a plucky guitar aria and lyrics painting familial issues and internal struggles, and it ultimately reminds me of “Broken Home” by 5 Seconds of Summer. Gaskarth has co-written countless songs for the boys from Australia and the similarities in their work are undeniable. “Broken Home” is easily one of 5 Seconds of Summer’s most well-written pieces, so it’s not necessarily bad to draw influences from it. However, “Broken Home” is a very emotional, personal track and “Nightmares” can feel a bit boring or disingenuous. It’s definitely one of the more toned-down songs on Last Young Renegade, but it’s still executed fairly decently. The vocal melody of the chorus is heartfelt and captivating, and the instrumentation hauntingly consummates the mood. The synths that kick in during the chorus are favorable enough, nothing too offensive or gratifying, but that’s basically how the entire song feels. “Nightmares” isn’t bad, it isn’t revolutionary, it’s just there. It’s enjoyable enough and I don’t have anything against it; it’s simply a filler track to me. And while I’m sure there is sincere emotion behind the writing, it just doesn’t move me one way or the other.

In contrast to that, “Dark Side of Your Room” accelerates the energy once again with pounding percussion and vociferous guitar strumming. The lively chorus is unbelievably anthemic and rhapsodic — you’re destined to be chanting along by the second strain. The pulsing beats and vocal harmonies are enough to keep you hooked all throughout the tune, and the lyrics detailing longing for a doomed relationship are candid and plausible. “Dark Side of Your Room” is another addition to the natural progression presented on Last Young Renegade; it feels like what you would expect All Time Low to instinctively devise after Future Hearts. It’s definitely one of my favorites on the album and I think it deserves some more attention.

Track nine introduces the sole feature on the album: Tegan and Sara on “Ground Control.” This celestial track is speckled with shimmering synths and atmospheric ambience to accompany the astronomic imagery conveyed in the lyrics. It’s a hopeful, optimistic tune, and the vocals contributed from Tegan and Sara really add something to the track. The guitars are almost unnoticeable, minus the occasional accentual measure or two in the background. “Ground Control (ft. Tegan and Sara)” is one of the most pop-centric songs on Last Young Renegade, and it’s not terrible by any means, but it just doesn’t feel like an All Time Low song. But again, to really delve into this record properly, we kinda have to throw out what the band used to sound like.

The standard edition of the album closes with “Afterglow,” a track intended to act as the “resolution” for the “last young renegade” character. The lyrics of youth and midnight adventures are facilitated by the scintillating synths and enthusiastic percussion, and the stripped-back chorus packs a nostalgic, exultant punch before kicking into the blissful artificial melody that truly defines this track. The song ends on a raw, tender tag with lyricism and rhythm that reminds me of Journey’s “Lights.” (“When the lights go down…”) It wraps the entire song altogether in a similar sense: “Afterglow” emulates the sentimental vibes of “Lights,” infatuated with the city nightlife and hopeful to return to those fond memories. It’s just that the production and instrumental apparatus has been updated for the modern zeitgeist of 2017: electronic melodies and sleek guitar work. “Afterglow” is another strong tune on Last Young Renegade and a perfect conclusion to bundle the recurring lyrical and musical themes together.

The deluxe edition of the album, however, includes two bonus tracks: “Chemistry” and “Vampire Shift.” Honestly, these two songs are some of my absolute favorites on the record and it’s a shame they were slated as bonus material. Simultaneously, I understand why they were not appointed as standard tracks; I feel like their vibes don’t exactly fit in with the rest of Last Young Renegade, and I’m at a loss of where I would coherently squeeze them in on the tracklisting. “Chemistry” follows in the established lyrical vein of nostalgia and reliving past experiences, and “Vampire Shift” commits to the obsession of late night merriment. The boisterous chorus on “Vampire Shift” is extremely catchy and entertaining, and I wish both tracks would get some more publicity.

Overall, just like any art, All Time Low’s Last Young Renegade is assuredly subjective. There isn’t a common consensus on the quality of the record considering some fans adore the full-length and others are sorely unimpressed. While it is quite underwhelming subsequently from Future Hearts, it is nonetheless a decent album. It’s All Time Low exploring uncharted domains and pushing the boundaries of what they’re capable of mastering. It’s new, it’s fresh, and yet familiar all at once. I personally enjoy the record and keep it in my general rotation, but I completely understand why others would be inclined to dispose of it without a second thought. The price of experimenting with new styles is risking the alienation of your fanbase. However, I think All Time Low pulls this new sound off surprisingly well, though the album is certainly not one of the most robust compositions in their discography. I’m giving Last Young Renegade a 7.5/10 for its innovation and ambition but also for its slight drawbacks and sporadic disappointments. Like I said, it’s a natural progression for the band, not exceptionally fascinating but still sufficiently entertaining.

Let me know what you think of Last Young Renegade down in the comments below!

  • Strongest songs: “Last Young Renegade,” “Life of the Party,” “Dark Side of Your Room,” “Nice2KnoU,” “Afterglow”
  • Weakest (not “worst”) songs: “Nightmares,” “Dirty Laundry”

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 in personality, 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 alright; 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].” The hackneyed instrumentation also doesn’t cater to his rougher operatic delivery to any considerable degree in order to pack the real emotional punch. “What Do I Know?” is littered in naiveté, and the octave-stacked vocal layering and humming is crudely annoying. 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.) (Also, how did Ed think it would be flattering to compare his lover to a “pothole?” Yuck.) 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 5/10 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,” “Perfect,” “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here”