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Keara HanlonNovember 23, 2021
Ed Sheeran performs at the 23th NRJ Music Awards ceremony in Cannes, in the south of France, Nov. 20, 2021. (Sipa via AP Images)Ed Sheeran performs at the 23th NRJ Music Awards ceremony in Cannes, in the south of France, Nov. 20, 2021. (Sipa via AP Images)

Journey with me back to the spring of 2013. Pope Francis has become the first Latin American pope. “The Great Gatsby” film has just come out and everyone is wondering if this will finally get Leo an Oscar. (It won’t). And the words “twerk” and “selfie” are added to the dictionary.

I am in the eighth grade, 14 years old and bristling with teenage angst. The car radio plays Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” incessantly on every station. And then when I cave and pay the 99 cents to download the song onto my iPod Touch, it becomes the song that begins unprompted every time I get in the car because it is first in the alphabetical queue. I have probably heard the opening notes to “The A Team” more times than I have ever heard any other song.

No matter how far he has risen in fame, Ed Sheeran has stayed true to himself.

Today, May 25, 2013 is the day I will see my first-ever live concert. Taylor Swift is performing at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., on her “Red” tour. Her opening act? That ginger-haired guy from the car’s Apple music queue, Ed Sheeran. The only song of his I know all the words to is “The A Team”—and I have no idea now what business I thought I had sing-screaming along to the lyrics in the car as though I, an innocent, suburban middle-schooler, could relate at all to the song’s story of a sex worker and cocaine addict—but nonetheless I am thrilled to see him (and Taylor) live.

When Sheeran and Swift take the stage together for their rendition of “Everything Has Changed,” he seems unpolished, dressed-down in jeans and a flannel, and looking endearingly normal for a guy playing to a sold-out crowd of 80,000. This is one thing that has never changed. Ed Sheeran has always seemed—and I mean this in the nicest way possible—like just a guy. No matter how far he has risen in fame, he has stayed true to himself.

Much of the album reads as a tender love letter to Sheeran’s wife Cherry and daughter Lyra.

But we certainly have come a long way since Sheeran’s first big album, “+,” back when he was simply an opening act. Now, Sheeran returns to the musical scene with a comfortingly familiar sound in “=,” although lyrically the new album is all about how much he has grown up as a person since his earlier work. His sound is unchanged, and he is still that same normal guy in the flannel and jeans. But now, with a wife and child to care for, Sheeran is beyond his years of young love lost and perhaps a bit too much partying (although “Bad Habits” reassures us that he still remembers how to have a good time). “=” shows how far he has come since those earlier years, and allows us to reflect on how much we have grown too.

Sheeran takes no time to get to the point. In the first track, “Tides,” the first lyrics read, “I have grown up, I am a father now/ Everything has changed, but I am still the same somehow.” Beginning with an upbeat but pleasantly simple guitar riff and drum beat, “Tides” seems reminiscent of Sheeran’s 2017 song “Castle on the Hill,” both musically and lyrically. If “Castle on the Hill” from “÷”was about a journey toward maturation, in “Tides” we have arrived in true adulthood.

Much of the album reads as a tender love letter to Sheeran’s wife Cherry and daughter Lyra. In “First Times,” we are reminded never to take for granted the simple pleasures of life and love. The chorus oozes with sweetness as Sheeran sings softly, “Ain’t it funny how the simplest things in life can make a man/ Little moments that pass us by/ Oh but I remember.”

Get ready to hear this song at every wedding you attend from now until Sheeran’s next album.

Each verse paints a picture as we see the relationship between Sheeran and (presumably) his wife progress from when they first started dating: “grabbed a couple beers, just me and you”; to Sheeran’s proposal: “The greatest thing that I have achieved/ Was four little words, down on one knee”; all the way to the present: “Our first child and a million more first times.” And throughout it all he holds on to these beautiful little moments they shared: “The first kiss, the first night, the first song that made you cry/ The first look in your eyes when I said ‘I love you.’”

Get ready to hear this song at every wedding you attend from now until Sheeran’s next album. (And it could be a while.)

If “First Times” is a love letter to Cherry, “Sandman” is fully dedicated to Lyra. This folksy marimba lullaby makes use of the mythical character, the Sandman, who is said to bring children dreams as they sleep. As the song goes on, it is easy to picture Sheeran as his child’s own personal Sandman, standing watch over her crib, and not just giving her good dreams of a “chocolate-covered roof and candy bars” or a “rainbow sugar river we can sail upon,” but praying that all of her own dreams will come true as she grows. “You look so sweet, my child/ Hanging out with the Sandman,” he coos. And like any good lullaby, the song offers comfort and reassurance, in this case that Sheeran will always be there to love and protect his daughter. “And though there’s rain outside, you’ll be warm and dry,” he promises.

“Overpass Graffiti” manages to capture the ache of love that was doomed rather than simply lost.

But “=”is not all sweet dreams. For those fans who are looking for a sad song to sob along to and add to their breakup playlist, Ed Sheeran delivers here too—“Overpass Graffiti” will shatter you. Although the song feels a little fast and rhythmic for such sad lyrics (very different from “Happier” on “÷”or “Give Me Love” from “+”), it still manages to capture the ache of love that was doomed rather than simply lost.

It was a love that they wanted to make work but couldn’t. Somehow this is sadder than the type of love that ends because one person hurts the other. “The cards were stacked against us both,” Sheeran laments in the pre-chorus. The line “I will always love you for what it’s worth” is filled with bittersweetness, a reminder that sometimes love can make a lasting impression on our hearts even when it doesn’t pan out. It’s not the gratifyingly bitter type of breakup song you would hear from Olivia Rodrigo (“Good for You”) or Taylor Swift (“We Are Never Getting Back Together”) but it still tugs at your heartstrings and leaves you with a satisfyingly melancholy vibe.

So, is it true that “Everything Has Changed”? Or is Ed Sheeran the same old guy from the “First Times” you heard his music? And where does this leave us?

Ed Sheeran’s sound still seems like the type of music you would hear live in a pub, and he still seems like a guy who would sit down to have a pint with you after his set. It’s just that now he (and perhaps some of his listeners who have also grown up over the years) have significant others and children to get home to at the end of the night. They’re the same people, but they’ve grown.

While “=”doesn’t deliver anything particularly shocking to the listener, its true value is in its familiarity, its tenderness and its appreciation of the normal, little things which can have a big impact on our hearts.

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