There was one question I kept asking myself when listening to Ed Sheeran’s fifth studio album “=,” an above-average, albeit poorly constructed collection of songs: “Who does Ed Sheeran want to be?”

Now, the term “poorly constructed” does not refer to the songs themselves. In fact, I found myself liking or at least being neutral about the majority of the tracks. Some of the songs even reminded me of Sheeran’s best work. “Tides” shares a personal rawness on par with “Castle on the Hill,” “Stop The Rain” brings the slick funk of past tracks like “Sing” or “Don’t” and “Love In Slow Motion” retains the tenderness of “Thinking Out Loud.” My least favorite tracks weren’t particularly egregious either. ”Bad Habits’’ simply outstayed its welcome through over-repetition, and songs like “Sandman” and “Be Right Now” are merely too stripped-back and elementary to capture extended interest.

No, the term “poorly constructed” refers to the thematic narrative and artistic vision of the album itself, or should I say the lack of one. Rather than aiming for coherency, every song basically falls into the same three groups that Sheeran’s work has been falling under for years.

The first group is where it all started a decade ago for Sheeran: the boy-next-door love ballad. These tracks build their appeal to the listener by being sweet, simple and real. At their best, these songs come across as very genuine and heartwarming, such as “Love In Slow Motion,” this album’s premier example from the group. Most, however, seem much more cookie-cutter and forgettable like “The Joker And The Queen” and “Leave Your Life.” After all, it’s tough to remain genuine when repeating the same formula three to four times an album.

Group two is without question my least favorite and the toughest to describe: the “ladies’ man” tracks. These songs try to convince the listener that Ed Sheeran, a nerdy-looking Englishman, is a ladykiller whose “Bad Habits” lead to vivid affairs. There are rare moments where this theme works, but none of them can be found on this album. I just will never believe that the same guy who wrote “The A Team” is the player being depicted in his most commercialized singles.

The third and final group is this album’s most intriguing: tracks that relate to Sheeran’s personal life. There are multiple times throughout the album where Sheeran breaks into meditations on where he’s at in his personal life and those who he has known along the way. The album literally opens with one of these acknowledgments, as “Tides” immediately references Sheeran being a new father. Yet rather than going on a turn for the rest of the album to musically display this perspective, these open and raw displays of emotion are merely scattered throughout the 14 tracks. Not only is this a bit of a letdown given how good of an opener “Tides” is, but it also makes it more confusing when you get to extremely personal songs like “Visiting Hours” later in the album.

When you put these three groups together, you get an album that is very tough to follow as a whole. The groups simply don’t mix together well, and it creates auditory whiplash at times from track to track. This makes “=” at times a tedious and perplexing experience for the listener.

Overall, if you love Ed Sheeran, then I have no doubts that you will love the album. For the rest of us, we can at least find solace in the few good drops in a general sea of mediocrity.

Rating: 3/5 stars