In December 2015 Ed Sheeran announced a break from his phone, emails, and social media. Explaining his reasoning on Instagram, Sheeran blamed “miss[ing]” things in the real world because of technology’s reliance on “seeing the world through a screen”[1]. The idea is not groundbreaking. Even in a society hanging on every technological advancement, there exists a widespread anxiety over the stifling impact smartphones have on our personal lives—and Sheeran is hardly the first celebrity to express this sort of displeasure. Exactly one year after the announcement, Sheeran resumed posting, teasing the recent release of two singles from his upcoming album, ÷: “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill”. The former is your textbook clubbing number about the female body and sexual attraction; the latter, though, speaks to the concerns of Sheeran’s digital absence. His “buggering off”[2] appears in the song as an escape to a typically pastoral childhood world, in contrast to the vapid echelons of American celebrity he is known to inhabit. In doing so, however, Sheeran relies on the imagery of a rustic working class so common to the cultural imagination of the United Kingdom today.

In the first verse of “Castle on the Hill” Sheeran offers the vignette of a childhood accident with the stereotypical backdrop of a British countryside. He remembers being six years old and “break[ing his] leg”[3], but the memory of pain is displaced by one of idyllic wistfulness. Instead of physical trauma, Sheeran remembers “tast[ing] the sweet perfume of the mountain grass [he] rolled down”, the moment’s emotional significance signified by the synaesthesia of tasting rather than merely smelling.

The experience has become nostalgic, and exaggerated to underline the melancholy of a childhood long lost. The childhood comfort shed in Sheeran’s maturity also comes with the humourous schoolboy image of Sheeran’s “brother and his friends” causing the accident. Even the adversaries in this story are unintentionally malicious, and hold intimate positions in Sheeran’s life. Indeed, the “roaring fields” invoke the image of a free wilderness far from the city, but one that is paradoxically domestic and safe. Sheeran is in esteemed company in his association of the countryside with a natural parental energy in contrast to a complex urban world—we could probably trace this back to the Victorian and Romantic novel at the very least, if not Virgil’s Eclogues or beyond. Sheeran accordingly opens the song with a nostalgia for the simplicity of the pastoral world of his youth.

In its second verse, Sheeran’s adolescence is similarly nostalgic; however, the stereotypical images of a working class upbringing creep in. Illegally, Sheeran “smoke[s] hand[-]rolled cigarettes” and “run[s] from the law”, “getting drunk with [his] friends”. These are the typical activities often projected onto the supposedly lost youths of the working class. They are children who apparently should, but do not, know any better. Sheeran continues to explain how after he and his friends got paid from their “Weekend jobs” they would “buy cheap spirits and drink them straight”, further underlining the transformation of a pastoral youth into a working class debauchery. What follows, then, is that the pastoral backdrop of the song’s first verse exists within a working class British countryside. This sort of behaviour may well also be typical to all classes, one might point out, but here it is no rebellious middle-class hedonism. In Sheeran’s depiction, teenagers have to work at the weekend for the luxury of “cheap” drinks, and are the societal menaces so familiar to contemporary tabloid gobbledygook.

The song’s bridge continues in the same vein, almost comically reciting various working class stereotypes. Sheeran’s friends from the same town are poor, with one “barely getting by” and another working at a presumably more physical job “down by the coast”. They also divorce more, with one “already on his second wife”. Equally, one “had two kids but lives alone”, invoking the oft-used, damning image of working class marital failures and a perceived inability to provide stable parenthood in a domestic absence. Drugs are similarly problematic, as one of Sheeran’s friends has a “brother [who] overdosed”, and the only friend to escape the countryside “left to sell clothes”. Clothes are an obvious signifier of a middle class, urban industry—Sheeran is surely not suggesting of a retail position, but of the typical world of materialism unreachable from the pastoral simplicity of his hometown. No wonder, then, that Sheeran’s friend was forced to move away to pursue the profession.

In “Castle on the Hill”, Sheeran thus presents the childhood world to which he “can’t wait” to return as the container of a pastoral, working class rusticism. The single does not explicitly attack those in question, indeed there is a determined humility in how “these people raised [him]”. But this does not make the imagery any less troubling. Anybody familiar with Sheeran and the brand he has created knows of his role as a talent who made it out because of innate songwriting ability—just try to find one interview of Sheeran where his couchsurfing around London isn’t mentioned.

Putting aside questions as to how truthful this feigned lack of privilege may well be—Framlingham, Sheeran’s hometown and abode of the song’s titular Framlingham Castle, is notoriously quaint—the song nevertheless pitches Sheeran’s pastoral nostalgia in a conversely positive way. “Castle on the Hill” presents Sheeran’s genuine longing to return to his roots, his illegally fast driving in the chorus symbolising an urgent need for something he has lost amid the global fame achieved after leaving his hometown.

We may, then, want to accuse Sheeran of peddling age-old tableaux of working class dysfunction, damaging in and of themselves, and it is difficult to explain away the very real social problems in the images Sheeran uses. Substance abuse and marital breakdown may well affect those outside of the working class, to be sure, but this does not make their manifestations in poorer social class any less urgent. This is no shot at Sheeran on my part, then, on my part for what for him is obviously a genuine experience; but it is an appeal to understand the sociopolitical conditions from which the emotional force of the song comes. And emotional force it surely has, as demonstrated in its record-breaking streaming, rapid climb to the top of the Vodafone Big Top 40 chart[4], and overwhelmingly positive response both online and in media discourse on the topic.

So how exactly does the working class symbolism sit within the design of the rest of the song? After all, the song is not solely about Sheeran’s hometown. As is often the case in the singer-songwriter genre, the landscape Sheeran describes is all symbolic—in this case, of the lost romantic partner whom Sheeran now “miss[es]”. As he drives, Sheeran “still remember[s] those country lanes” when he and his partner “did not know the answers”—of the specifics of adulthood, we can assume. Here, the pastoral freedom of working class youth represents the same unadulterated purity of young love; the setting of the boundless countryside and mistaken drunken fun suggest of an emotional intensity unknown to the vapid celebrity world Sheeran is running away from. The song’s working class rusticism thus underpins the authenticity of Sheeran’s youthful, and apparently resurfacing, affection for a partner. As Sheeran says himself, “it’s real”, and despite the adult world of media frenzies there is a genuineness Sheeran finds in a lost love. This indeed is another side of his working class imagery: that despite a lack of financial stability, the working class inherit a rustic wisdom, a sense of the value of what really matters. This connotation is, of course, a politically dubious one. And yet it is fundamental to the way Sheeran characterises the sincerity of his romance.

 

Footnotes

[1] “Please read x.” teddysphotos, 13 Dec. 2015. Instagram.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Ed Sheeran—Castle on the Hill (Official Lyric Video).” Ed Sheeran, 5 Jan. 2017. YouTube.

[4] “The Vodafone Big Top 40 Chart: Chart for the week ending Sunday 8 January 2017.” bigtop40.com.