Ed Sheeran, “÷” (Atlantic)
Sheeran’s sentimental streak is matched only by his determination to win on his third album of shrewdly conceived love songs in which every last detail feels arranged for maximum impact.
Introduced as a sensitive folkie on his hit 2011 debut, “+,” Sheeran became a superstar with 2014’s more expansive “x,” which spawned a modern wedding standard in “Thinking Out Loud,” which won the Grammy for song of the year.
Pronounced “divide” (after the earlier “plus” and “multiply”), “÷” contains the British singer’s clearest bids for Top 40 penetration. “Shape of You,” one of two lead singles — and recent No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — is a slinky electro-pop come-on with traces of the tropical-house style familiar from recent hits by Justin Bieber and Kygo. The other single, “Castle on the Hill,” channels Coldplay channeling U2 about missing one’s hometown.
Then there’s the handful of shamelessly goopy ballads, including the John Mayer-ish “How Would You Feel (Paean),” complete with soft-rock guitar solo by John Mayer.
As calculating as Sheeran can seem here, he understands there’s a fine line between universal and generic, which is why he offers idiosyncratic touches to make songs stand out. In “Castle on the Hill,” it’s a line about how he knows that he and his friends have matured because it’s been ages since they’ve thrown up from drinking too much; in “Supermarket Flowers,” which documents his grandmother’s funeral, it’s the painful specificity of the images such as nightgowns folded “neatly in a case.”
“Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” are surprisingly credible Irish ditties that few in Sheeran’s audience outside Ireland are likely to view as especially cool. He told the Guardian that one reason he wanted to do the Irish stuff is “there’s a huge gap in the market” that nobody’s filled since the Corrs sold 20 million records in the late 1990s.
MIKAEL WOOD, Los Angeles Times
Khalid, “American Teen” (RCA)
This time last year, Khalid Robinson was a high school senior in El Paso, Texas, an Army brat just starting to write songs. This month, his major-label debut arrived in stores. The 19-year-old’s shockingly fast ascent is due to his stark, yet soulful single “Location,” which came out of nowhere last year. Like much of Khalid’s music, “Location” is simple and straightforward, allowing repetition and his warm, soulful voice to make his points about growing up in America right now.
It may not sound deep, but it feels right. And that’s part of Khalid’s charm. He’s a teenager who sounds like a teenager. He’s the male R&B version of pop’s Alessia Cara or, country’s Taylor Swift back in the day.
For that reason, the lighter songs on “American Teen” fare best. “Saved” is a catchy tale about keeping a girl’s number in his cellphone in case she calls him back. “Coaster” compares a breakup to a roller-coaster ride.
Though he’s still learning how to write songs, Khalid has been around music all his life. He’s a classically trained vocalist and his mother sings in the U.S. Army Band, the reason he has lived everywhere from Germany to upstate New York. And that may be why songs like “Let’s Go” work so well, even though they are definitely informal. Khalid is a natural and it shows all through “American Teen.”
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
• Laura Marling, “Semper Femina”
• The Shins, “Heartworms”
• Greg Graffin, “Millport”