A world without the hits of Ed Sheeran would be a world diminished, but in ways we'd probably never notice. It would be like a world without souvenir keychains, or pennies, or LED tea lights, or clothes for dogs — a world of Airbnbs without black-and-white photographs of Manhattan, and Chinese carry-out entrees without baby corn. Or really, a world of six-month dental checkups without Ed Sheeran songs playing quietly in the background.
Some people like to call Sheeran's songs "earworms," but they're more like the invisible microbes that overpopulate our bodies, which means they are gross and mysterious, but ultimately something we don't ever have to think about. If you heard Sheeran singing them at Washington's Capital One Arena on Tuesday night, you might also call them "normal" — unless you know that the idea of normalcy only applies to a society's most privileged citizens.
So instead, let's say that Sheeran's consummate unexceptionalism is the thing that has made his music so impossible to evade in our civic airspace. With a voice that's soft and absent of personality, he smooths down the edges of a ballad until nothing remains, which makes his songs difficult to dislike because there's nothing left to have a feeling about. That's probably the only way to explain why a songwriter so unremarkable — one in a global megacosm of sad guys using acoustic guitars to expose their wounds to the world — has been chosen to warm the throne atop mayonnaise mountain.
But if Sheeran's biggest singles have become such a prevalent part of our reality, why didn't they feel credible in concert? This young man grew up in England on the melodies of other British charm machines (David Gray, Damien Rice, the Beatles), but nowadays, his closest musical relatives live in Nashville, where the biggest country stars know how to sound like they've lived inside their lyric sheet, even if they haven't.
On Tuesday night — with Sheeran performing solo on various acoustic guitars with only a few other piped-in sounds — his restraint felt like a glitch. It was tough to imagine a multiplatinum wallflower kissing a stranger's neck during "Galway Girl," or sniffing his bedsheets after a one-night stand during "Shape of You." Throughout, he strummed the guitar too hard, but never sang hard enough, presumably imagining himself as the hero of his sentimental story-songs while only ever comporting himself as a well-liked pop star. When the pathos of his lyrics required a ponderous squish-face, he still appeared to be grinning.
After an hour of secreting his songlike substances, Sheeran hit a strange plateau with "Photograph," a ballad about a pocket-sized snapshot "where our eyes are never closing, hearts are never broken, and time's forever frozen still." What became clear in that moment was that Sheeran wasn't slowing anything down, or speeding anything up, or having any kind of fun with the clock the way most musicians do. For his audience, this wasn't good or bad — there was no wishing the night could last forever, no watching the paint dry. Regardless of tempo, Sheeran's songs only ever seemed to move at the speed of time.
Unable to build momentum, he could only issue promises. "I swear it will get easier," he sang. "I will be loving you 'til we're 70," he sang. Who wouldn't want to live inside his fortress of sweet nothings? It sounded comfy in there.
And even when Sheeran's songs felt pointless, they reminded us of the pointlessness that surrounds us at all times, and how it makes us feel safe. Those blank Airbnb walls? Unsettling. Silence in the dentist's chair? Unacceptable. So as we continue to clutter up our world in order to convince ourselves that it's real, Sheeran's music joins the great junk pile of reality — the stuff we assume is holding the universe together until we realize that it isn't.