Should I praise this single for its understanding of mainstream pop consumers' tastes, or condemn it for its inoffensive conformity (and lack of philosophical stimulation)?
The announcement of a new Ed Sheeran single took me somewhat by surprise. I thought he would be too busy spending time with his family and managing other artists such as Maisie Peters on his Gingerbread record label. But on top of all this, he is working on the follow-up to 2017’s internationally successful, if overplayed, Divide album, as teased with the arrival of this new song, entitled ‘Bad Habits’.
‘Bad Habits’ leaves me with mixed views – mainly because it doesn’t sound a lot like the Ed Sheeran we know and love at all.
The main headline here is that Ed Sheeran has attempted to reinvent himself – “I always aim to push myself and my music in new directions and hopefully you’ll hear that on the new single,” he said while promoting the single. “People see me as the acoustic singer-songwriter who does ballads and there was just a lot of that. So I wanted to go in the studio and make something that was totally different.”
This in itself is fine and admirable as a way of avoiding stale artistic complacency, but only truly works when the finished product, while being different and surprising, still sounds recognisably like the artist in question. I could see this working if Sheeran was to take inspiration from, say, Robert Fripp or Tin Machine, but not Daft Punk. Not only is ‘Bad Habits’ heavily synth-based to the point of ostracising Sheeran’s acoustic guitar – his unique selling point and most distinctive feature – but when I first heard it, Sheeran’s voice seemed unrecognisable. I couldn’t believe it was him singing. The lyrics feel equally generic and perfunctory, with no clear relevance to his real-life experiences.
Don’t get me wrong, ‘Bad Habits’ is a fine pop song. I am particularly keen on the song’s opening refrain, with an atmosphere partially reminiscent of The Cure‘s ‘Lullaby’, and Sheeran’s “hoo-ooh, hoo-oooooh” vocal hook running over the top. But for the most part the song sounds, production-wise, like a budget Róisín Murphy. It’s as though Sheeran heard last year’s excellent Róisín Machine (or, as Alexis Petridis suspected in his review for the Guardian, The Weeknd’s After Hours) and has intended to blindly copy it, rather than sophisticatedly apply it to what he does. Heavy synth production is not only unsuited to Sheeran’s musical aesthetic; it is also not what people recognise and listen to him for. Ed Sheeran without his guitar is like a dog without a bone, especially as there’s nothing to replace the guitar in this song. Well, apart from a big video starring Sheeran as a vampire, which seems to have got more attention and interest than the actual song itself.
I know there is no such thing as an original idea, and that immature pop musicians borrow while mature pop musicians steal. I just wish Sheeran had added a personal twist, and made some effort to sound different, instead of sounding like another carbon copy. As such, a Google search reveals at least four other songs with the name ‘Bad Habits’, songs that will now be usurped in the algorithms by this piece regardless of whether they deserve it. But I suppose it isn’t the main point of pop music to be innovative or risk-taking.
As much as I may moan about how my personal and self-entitled fantasy of Ed Sheeran doing a purely acoustic or heavy metal or Latvian folk album isn’t being met, I do think ‘Bad Habits’ is a well-written song, and it will satisfy its purpose of getting maximum airplay and pleasing the masses perfectly adequately.
‘Bad Habits’ is out now via Asylum Records UK. Watch the video below: