Ed Sheeran At Barclay Center, Friday, September 29th, 2017, Reviewed
“Ed Sheeran sells trite innocence by the pound. He uses bland wisdom and unimaginative music to ponder the basic good and bad in people around him, without once looking inward…” That’s not me, that’s Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes, who composed a 2.8/10 hit job on his third album ÷ (known as Divide from now on). My feelings about Pitchfork and Ed Sheeran are pretty well documented, I find one irritatingly hip and the other occasionally splendid. My review of Ed Sheeran’s 2012 Mercury Lounge set, as well as 2015’s Forest Hills performance, finds the fault lines with pop present perfect. In 2015, I wrote this about his Global Citizen performance: “At least Coldplay have one another, at least Bey has a backing band, Ed is right front and center, saying the same crap day in and day out. The man wouldn’t know a spontaneous instant if it took his guitar and rammed it up his nose. Seven sucky songs and one with Chris.”
Soooooooooooooooo, yeah, occasional songs. The debut album Plus boils down to one great song, no, not that one, “Lego Land,” Multiple is the huge sixteen song brick that would have made a very good single album, and then there was Divide, the album Pitchfork dislike so much, and a huge hit, still a huge hit, with “Shape Of You” over a billion streams on Spotify alone, and a brace, more than a brace, an overload of ace tracks. If (yeah, I know the timeline), Multiple was his Ed’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Divide is his Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. Ed is signed to Elton’s management company, which is one reason the reference isn’t outlandish, another is because in the early stages of his career, Elton was hated by the critics quite as much as Ed is today. And not only the critics but most people with an ounce of cool in their soul have trolled him for years. For me, that ended with Divide, a magnificent album that has been in the UK Top 5 since the beginning of the year, and remains in the US Top 20. It is the most happiest of huge commercial successes, it is one that deserves its success: the absolute essence of Common Denominator pop where every song is great and “The Shape Of You” is even greater than that. It is huge.
At Barclay’s last night, after the poor man’s Ed James Blunt performed a self-assured half hour, Ed didn’t divide, he united and conquered the US. All the caveats remain, and worse he has dumped “Lego House,” from the set. He fakes intimacy on a huge scale. None of it matters, not only are the songs too strong and too pleasantly presented to take offense, Ed makes his grifting part of the story. He’s like a gypsy, a nomad, a con man, a Harold Hill, and he gives a performance that is the definition of self-reflexive, it keeps on coming back to itself. Are we the loudest audience ever? Did he find this song on an old voice mail he’d forgotten about? Was he watching a girl in the third to last row dance all night at his last concert? The answer to the last question is he absolutely did nothing of the sort. He can’t see anyone in the first row, he can’t see ANYONE after the second row. But oh what a charming conceit, what a flirty fun thing to believe.
The best time we’ve seen Ed was opening for Taylor Swift on the Red Tour. It made him a superstar and after it was over he added three nights headlining at Madison Square Garden and sold them all out. Last night was the second best time I’ve seen the Member Of The British Empire, the 26 year old superstar one man band, with just a loop pedal, a guitar, a synth (for one song: “Shape Of You”), a piano player for one song (the stupendous “How Would You Feel (Paean)” -the one he found on an old voice mail), a harp for another, and a huge bank of video screens behind me, and that’s it. The audience, much more diverse than Styles on Thursday at Radio City, stay with him from beginning to end, the 90 minute set has no dead air but lots of room to breath, it is all pop timing as studio apartment lo fi heartache. Opening with “Castle On The Hill” and ending, well actually he ends with “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” but for the sake of this review I’m gonna claim it was “Shape Of You” because we all left after that one, it was smooth sailing, everything a perfect encapsulation of what it means to love melody and love love. Ed gets on stage with his little guitar and his pedals and uses his hands to beat out the rhythm, and we can’t resist him. How can you resist “Castle” and heartbreaker “Happier,” “Thinking About You” and “Don’t”. The hits never stop in a set that includes eight songs off the latest.
Divide has been at the top of my best albums of 2017 since it was released and if on stage it might be time for Sheeran to form a band, the perpetual grifter, the conman as pop avatar, has been travelling the world since March performing this set, giving us a wink and a hug then, like a latter day Chuck Berry or Howard Hill, packing away his guitar and grabbing a bus to his next gig. It has worked for him one more time.