Spotify has chosen to promote Ed Sheeran’s new single by sitting it at the head of a playlist of his previous hits. The “plays” column of the latter makes for mind-boggling reading: the figures look less like streaming statistics and more like long-distance phone numbers. Every track is immediately recognisable – you could have spent your every waking hour engaged in a dogged attempt to avoid the music of Ed Sheeran and you’d still know exactly what they were and who they were by within seconds of them starting. He’s spent the last decade enjoying the kind of success that, in one sense at least, brooks no argument: even his loudest detractor couldn’t argue against his ability to write one song after another that attains a weird kind of omnipresence, hits that evolve into inescapable facts of daily life.
This is not a state of affairs that Bad Habits looks likely to change. That Sheeran has trailed it as a “surprise” and “mad” tells you more about his innate populism than the song itself: it’s a well-written, extremely commercial pop song, cowritten by regular collaborators Fred Gibson and Snow Patrol guitarist Johnny McDaid, the latter of whom also had a hand in earlier Sheeran hits Shape of You, Photograph and Bloodstream.
His acoustic guitar is lower in the mix, the track is synth-heavy and propelled by a four-to-the-floor house beat, the lyrics have a stronger hint of the confessional about them than usual – on the surface, it reads like a song in the vein of Sing or Shape of You, but the object of the narrator’s lust fairly clearly comes in a bottle or a wrap. しかしながら, anyone given to taking his pronouncements at face value should be warned that we’re not dealing with Trout Mask Replica here.
Its primary influence appears to be the Weeknd’s last album After Hours. The sound offers a similar glossy update of 80s dance-pop by way of Daft Punk’s take on house to that found on In Your Eyes or Save Your Tears; just as After Hours’s biggest hit Blinding Lights gives every impression it’s about to turn into A-ha’s 1985 chart-topper Take on Me, so the hook of Bad Habits has a distinct hint of Bronski Beat’s 1984 smash Smalltown Boy about it. You might also detect the Weeknd’s influence in its lyrical conflation of sex with wracked, compulsive hedonism.
But more than the Weeknd, what Bad Habits sounds like is an enormous, globe-swallowing hit, destined for a kind of ubiquity you might describe as Sheeran-esque.