It starts with a marimba.
While the sonic qualities of "Shape of You" seem to call the listener to a Tropical House dancefloor, Sheeran's lyrics quickly reveal that he's taking the listener from the club to the pub. Although originally intended for Barbadian superstar Rihanna, (ah, you say to yourself, that's why it sounds like RiRi), with the first line "The club isn't the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go…" and a quick Van Morrison reference, Sheeran's red head begins to show and now we're in.
"I may be crazy, don't mind me"
The twenty-five year old raconteur may be writing hits for pop stars, but "Shape of You" doesn't entirely follow the cookie cutter model of the typical chart topper. The main character of the song hangs with his mates at the bar and begins a cliché back and forth with a young woman with love that's "handmade". Ya know, like a sweater. Yet the pop convention is given a twist as the the boy finishes with a shy "I may be crazy, don't mind me". If not a proper English gentleman, Sheeran's protagonist is far from the dancehall player we're used to. Sheeran puts on a falsetto vocal and answers as the girl, "Say boy let's not talk too much, grab on my waist and put that body on me". It's easy to imagine Rihanna singing these lines, but Sheeran's voice lends a Prince-like androgyny to the song which adds a layer of interest that would otherwise be lacking.
The chorus is pure pop hypnotism. Drums, some string sounding thing (hey I didn't record the song), and a classic "Oh I, Oh I" refrain that locks the listener in for the remaining two minutes and forty-three seconds. Sheeran's economy with words allows the second verse to cover the two character's economic status, family history, and entire Chinese Buffet/taxi ride makeout sesh in a mere ninety-five syllables (I counted). Then back to the payoff, this time with an electric guitar lick accenting the refrain like the spirit of Ali Farka Touré making a top 40 appearance.
The bridge reveals an implicit presence that's felt throughout the song, but is unheard up until now: the familiar strum of Sheeran's guitar. The six string breaks out and drives the song home as he sings "Come on be my baby…". A plea to his listeners? Just another catchy hook? Let's go with both.
So Does It Suck?
I don't think so. Fans of "A-Team" and "Photograph" may find "Shape of You" a bit fruit forward for their tastes. Even so, the artist's blend of top 40 pop is backed by his familiar vocals and rootsy guitar to provide enough earthiness for his longtime fans to take a sip. But if you're like me and find the aforementioned tunes to be overly earnest and have been looking for another "You Need Me…" with a less self conscious hook, look no further.
Sheeran isn't out to change the genre just yet. But he's taking some adventurous steps (at least for him) that don't suck. It's too soon to tell if this is a new direction for the singer/songwriter or just some fun to be had after his year long social media hiatus. His full length album ÷ should put that question to rest upon it's release on March 10, 2017.
Watch the video for "Shape of You" below: