It’s a great time to be a male ginger in pop culture. Riverdale — The CW’s adaptation of the Archie comics, starring everyone’s favorite 75-year-old redheaded teen heartthrob — just got picked up for a second season. Prince Harry has been praised for dating Suits actress and humanitarian Meghan Markle, who just wrote an essay for Time about the stigma of menstruation for International Women’s Day. And singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is arguably the U.K.’s most beloved cultural export to America right now that's not called The Great British Baking Show. Without a doubt, 2017 is a great time to be Ed, who's riding the pop charts with one foot in the club and the other at a wedding.
His third studio album, ÷, which just broke the record for most first-day Spotify streams, continues in the mode of his 2011 debut, +, and its 2014 follow-up, x — it's a slew of tender ballads, livened up by the occasional up-tempo earworm. Powered by an impossible-to-forget circular marimba hook, first single “Shape of You” is a dance-floor banger for the exact moment you feel drunk enough to dance. Sheeran’s sing-rapping is of a piece with country star Sam Hunt's: It's not entirely ironic, but not fully straight-faced either. “Shape of You” is a spiritual mate to x's “Don’t.” The earlier song had a slightly sinister musical undercurrent, to match its tale of feeling betrayed by a casual hookup he secretly wanted more from; “Shape of You” is a lust-at-first-sight story of a trip to the bar that turns into making out in the backseat of a cab and then, maybe, something more.
“Shape of You” features a lyric about putting “Van the Man on the jukebox” — one of several nods to Van Morrison on the album. Sheeran has cited Morrison’s 1988 album Irish Heartbeat as a formative influence, which makes sense: If you want to be a ginger sex symbol with an Irish heart and a taste for Northern soul, you'll find no better model than Van. When Sheeran sings, “And now my bedsheets smell like you” on "Shape of You," it's a visceral image that immediately conjures up “T.B. Sheets,” Van’s 1967 song about a young woman dying of tuberculosis and the (much more depressing, but equally vivid) association of a girl and a scent imprinted in his memory. Sheeran's hit chorus twists the wild romance of the opening verses into something unsaccharine but real, with his admission that “although my heart is falling too, I’m in love with your body.”
Like Morrison's, Sheeran’s visions of love are beautifully pastoral and green. On “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here,” he sings of “daisies, daisies, perched upon your forehead.” Another album track, “How Would You Feel (Paean),” doubles down on the crackling vinyl nostalgia of Sheeran’s voice with an intro that recalls Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue.”
Released in tandem with “Shape of You,” “Castle on the Hill” is a song about trying to drive so fast you might enter a memory palace of wherever you're headed. Reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” “Castle on the Hill” is a flood of emotions: “And I’ve not seen the roaring fields in so long / I know I’ve grown, but I can’t wait to go home.” The song he's singing out the car window while he's “driving at 90 down those country lanes," he tells us, is “Tiny Dancer,” another example of how Sheeran threads his songs with references to artists he admires. Produced by Sheeran and Benny Blanco, "Castle on the Hill" finds Sheeran driving both toward and away from his adolescent recall of a first kiss that didn’t go perfectly, or learning to drink and hand-roll cigarettes. The bridge is bittersweet, as he takes stock of what happened to the people in those memories as life has taken its unexpected turns — an overdose, a divorce, some struggling to make rent while Sheeran has left his Yorkshire home for an endless world tour. Later, deluxe-edition album closer “Save Myself” is a quiet self-diagnosis about spending too much time taking care of other people and ultimately vowing to stop neglecting your own needs. Like many artists' third major-label albums, ÷ is the sound of someone who has found success taking stock of what he means to do with it.
“Dive” feels like a compatriot to one of Ed’s biggest hits, “Thinking Out Loud.” He warns a potential love interest that he always goes all-in, “So don’t call me 'baby' unless you mean it / And don’t tell me you need me if you don’t believe it.” Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” comes to mind listening to “Perfect,” which assures his lover, “Darling, you look perfect tonight” and calls her “stronger than anyone I know.” Sheeran shares Joel’s ability to mix sadness and hope. He never puts up a layer of cool defense, because he only knows how to be warm.
Ultimately, “Shape of You” is one of a handful of pop outliers on an album that mostly traffics in feeling classic. The poppier songs are strong, too — “Shape of You,” “New Man,” and “Barcelona” share a breezy humor and wine-cooler fizz. "New Man," another Benny Blanco production, is about an ex’s new ultra-basic boyfriend and features a lyric about a guy who “owns every single Ministry CD,” which I only realized later refers to the British club and record label Ministry of Sound, not the industrial band Ministry.
Some of Sheeran’s best lyrics are the small, specific details he drops along the way. I was charmed by the line on “Don’t” about hanging out with a hookup buddy and “a takeaway pizza,” and equally taken by the reference in “Shape of You” to hitting an all-you-can-eat buffet. The vision of romance in Sheeran's pop songs always feels achievable and cozy, never too loftily dramatic. The obvious Van Morrison influence continues on “Galway Girl,” about a girl who “played the fiddle in an Irish band / But she fell in love with an Englishman.” (Gossips suggested that the fiddle-playing girl in question was Niamh Dunne, who plays elsewhere on the album, but she has noted for the record that she's otherwise occupied, quite happily: "I am just back from my honeymoon, so I can safely say I married an Irishman.”) “Nancy Mulligan” is an Irish trad-style song about Sheeran’s grandparents, a Catholic and a Protestant who fell in love in Ireland, crossing the Romeo and Juliet divide of their religions.
What all these songs have in common, pop hits and love ballads alike, is that they're unabashedly sentimental without being too sweet. Sheeran's songs are devised to melt even the most cynical heart like a snug fireplace. No matter how many times he gets his heart broken, he always seems to jump right back with an open heart.