“The theme of the record is me turning 30, becoming a dad, losing a friend, trying to balance work and marriage,” Ed Sheeran tells Apple Music of his fourth full-length LP, =. “It’s stuff that really has meant a lot to me.” The follow-up to 2017’s all-conquering ÷ was originally conceived as an acoustic record, with Sheeran setting up in Nashville way back in 2018 to work. You’ll find tracks from that time here (“First Times,” “Love in Slow Motion”), but—with Sheeran restlessly writing and recording right up until its release—= is a typically eclectic record from an artist who has always delighted in confounding expectations. There’s ’80s-inspired pop (the gargantuan “Bad Habits”), sad bangers (“Overpass Graffiti”), a cinematic piano ballad (“The Joker and the Queen”), and even a child’s lullaby, written for his daughter (“Sandman”). All tied together by bare-skinned songwriting, = is Sheeran’s most personal, moving record to date. And he has just one request before you press play. “Please just listen to it once in order, that’s all I ask,” he says. “I don’t care what you do after your first listen. Put songs on a playlist, put the album on shuffle—whatever you want. But you should listen the way it’s intended to be listened to at least once.” And as you do that, read Sheeran’s intimate track-by-track guide to the album here. “Tides” “I had ‘Eraser’ on ÷, which was me summing up the last few years and letting people know where I was. I wanted to do that again, but I didn’t really want to rap this time. I wanted something you could open with in a stadium that was huge, but, at the same time, tiny. So the verse is as chaotic as it comes, it’s just noise: This is what's going on my life. This is my career. And then everything stops. It's about what happened: I became a dad and all the noise was just shut off. Nothing else mattered at that moment.” “Shivers” “I sometimes find myself in a vice-grip choke hold by the past songs I've written or the genre I'm in, or to always be a meaningful, deep singer-songwriter and write songs that really rip out someone’s heart. But the more and more my career's gone on, I like to do fun love songs sometimes. You could put this song on at the office Christmas party and hopefully everyone's going to get twisted to it.” “First Times” “The reason ‘First Times’ is at this point in the album is so there can be an intake of breath from my fans, like, ‘OK, cool, there are songs on here for us.’ This is pretty much classic me format. And it has a funny story. Fred [aka producer and artist Fred again..] and I wrote this song and my brother [composer Matthew Sheeran] did a string part that went over the demo. We were living in this house in Nashville, which had an amazing wine cellar, and all of my friends had these weed pens. We'd finish a day of sessions, have a load of wine, get on the weed pens, watch an Avengers movie, and just smash Doritos. One night, Fred is like, ‘Hey, man, can you re-vocal this?’ And I could barely keep my eyes open. I was not a functioning human. I sung it once and that’s the version on the song, which is why it’s gentle and delicate. Because I was almost gone.” “Bad Habits” “I'm very aware that I've never really done dance songs solo, and I've always had that in my back pocket as something I wanted to try. Fred and his brother go by Rain Radio, and I wanted to make something like their track ‘Talk About’—not for me to sing, just a club banger. I went home and I had five or six songs I'd made that day. I played them to my wife [Cherry Seaborn], and as soon as ‘Bad Habits’ came on, she was like, ‘That. You should expand on that.’ So we did. If you stripped the dance beat away from this and sung it on a piano, it would fit on x or + quite well. I became a dad and I needed to cut certain things out that were detrimental to my body, basically.” “Overpass Graffiti” “The song’s about a breakup that was years ago. You still hold on to the memory of that and it will never fade, like graffiti on the overpass. Originally, this song was a power ballad, it was very slow. Then Fred said, ‘Have you ever thought about making it double time?’ It gave it new life.” “The Joker and the Queen” “We’d written ‘Bad Habits,’ and I was like, ‘I think we’re done for the day. I’m not going to put pressure on trying to get another song.’ Then Fred said, ‘I just worked with this guy, [British singer-songwriter] Sam Roman, and he did a piano instrumental that I've always thought is really beautiful, but I've never been able to write anything over it.’ He played it and honest to god, it was probably 15 to 20 minutes of writing down metaphors and whispering them in. I had the line ‘joker and the queen,’ then it was like, ‘I fold, you saw my hand, you let me win, you put the cards on the table.’ I didn’t like this song for a while—in my mind, songwriting is cheating when it’s that easy. Then my brother did a string part and suddenly it sounded like this old classic that had been around since the ’50s. I fell in love with it.” “Leave Your Life” “I flew over to Australia for the memorial of my friend Michael [Gudinski, the beloved Australian music industry figure who was a mentor to Sheeran, who died in March 2021] and was quarantining for two weeks. We watched the funeral via a live video link, and afterwards I was on the phone to his daughter, who said, ‘My dad always said that he loved me. The last thing he ever said to me was “I love you.”’ I was like, ‘My daughter is six months old. If I went tomorrow, she would never know.’ So this is a letter to her, saying that. I think this is my favorite song on the album. There aren’t a lot of lyrics in this, but every single line, I feel, means the most.” “Collide” “I felt the album was quite morose up to this point, and I wanted to pick it up again with an uplifting song. My first-dance wedding song was ‘Thirteen’ by Ben Kweller, which is a list of things that he did with his wife. I messaged him and said, ‘Can I do a version of that [and] it’s everything else that me and Cherry have done?’ And he said, ‘Go ahead!’ It's a tune that, if you were at a festival, you'd be putting your hands in the air and holding a glass of cider.” “2step” “In April or May in 2021, I was in LA with [producer] Andrew Watt, who I’ve known for 10 years, but who I’ve never worked with before. I went by his studio and we made four of five songs for the fun of it. ‘2step’ was one that I really liked. It sounded like 2010 me—it was me at 30, trying to be me at 18, singing about what I was going through at 30. I always had the line ‘two-stepping with the woman I love’ because I can't dance. And my wife, god bless her, isn't an incredible dancer either. But the two-step is what we can do.” “Stop the Rain” “This is about a lawsuit I’m involved with. Every time I've ever taken influence from a song, I give it credit. And this thing that I'm in at the moment, I believe I'm in the right. But the rain just won’t stop. It's just about knowing that you're in the right, and knowing that you will eventually get out of it. I do feel like this song is me taking the shit of that situation and making something great out of it.” “Love in Slow Motion” “In the city, there’s always something going on. Then [Cherry and I] moved to Suffolk full-time, and not many people live around us, and we would start having evenings where it was like, ‘Oh man, this is really nice. How are you?’ ‘Love in Slow Motion’ is basically about switching all of that off and enjoying each other's company and realizing why you love each other.” “Visiting Hours” “I was working with [British singer-songwriter] Amy Wadge, who I'd made ‘Thinking Out Loud’ with. And she said she'd been working with this guy called Ant Clemons, who had sent a song for me to check out. It wasn’t for me, but it had this line: ‘I wish heaven had visiting hours.’ We asked if we could use it. And then my friend Michael passed away. I had about a week and a half where I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone without sobbing. I wrote this at my house and then sang it at his memorial. I found it quite upsetting to write and definitely more upsetting to sing.” “Sandman” “I wrote this song before my daughter was born. I thought, ‘She’s going to need a lullaby. What would she be dreaming about?’ This comes just after ‘Visiting Hours,’ so you’ve got sadness and loss and then joy and life. I think it just diffuses the situation instantly after ‘Visiting Hours.’” “Be Right Now” “I purposefully wrote this as a closing track. It felt like the end of the record, my family basically going back into our world. The album literally starts with you being slapped in the face with noise, and the album ends with a vocoder choir singing really gently and easing you out. I just liked it—I really, really like the sound of it.”

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