Ed Sheeran puts his grief to music on his latest

Album: Subtract

Artist: Ed Sheeran

Music labels: Asylum and Atlantic Records

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Ed Sheeran’s latest album, “-“, delves into a tumultuous period in the singer’s life when his wife, Cherry Seaborn, battled cancer while pregnant with their second child. The album (‘Subtract’) follows the same formula as his previous work, “=,” which explored themes of turning 30 and becoming a parent.

Sheeran teams up with Aaron Dessner of ‘The National’ to create an album that is slow and sombre, with a mix of acoustic guitar, piano and electronics.

‘Subtract,’ is a vulnerable and raw exploration of the aftermath of his misfortunes. Collaborating with Dessner, who was introduced to him by Taylor Swift, Sheeran strips back the arrangements in the first four songs, separating ‘Subtract’ from his genre explorations of the past few records. Despite being dismissed as a magpie in the 2022 ‘Shape of You’ copyright-infringement trial, Sheeran’s music endures because he understands what audiences are listening to and because people really need the stuff.

Despite Sheeran’s previous exploration of death in his music, the expressions of sadness and resilience in this album feel jumbled and lacking in sentiment. Sheeran’s attempts at poignant statements often fall flat. However, it is admirable that an artist of Sheeran’s stature speaks out about mental health issues like depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts in songs like ‘End of Youth’.

Watch the music video for ‘End of Youth’:

While the album can’t decide between the agonizingly personal and the comfortingly universal, moments where it finds a balance are absolute tearjerker.

‘Boat’ is about freezing on the English shoreline at night just to feel something that isn’t anguish and then rediscovering your confidence. ‘F64’ is a gutting 64-bar rap; it tries to catch him up on what life has been like without him. It’s a volcanic shower of simmering hurt, a heartbreaking and beautiful expression of the devastating power of loss.

‘Subtract’ has other moments of redemption, such as ‘Eyes Closed’ which he co-wrote with serial hitmaker Max Martin and the homage to Dusty Springfield in ‘Dusty,’ but these songs still feel derivative of the ginger’s previous work. The shining moment on the album is ‘Sycamore,’ which details Seaborn’s cancer diagnosis with clarity and emotion.

Watch the music video for ‘Eyes Closed’:

Throughout it all, Sheeran’s childlike belief that love will prevail shines through. Despite life’s hardships, he emphasizes the importance of taking things one day at a time. While the album may not be a masterpiece, it is a reflection of Sheeran’s personal struggles and a testament to his perseverance.

Some songs feel laboured and inelegant, while others are a bit too eager for application in hundreds of thousands of very different life circumstances. Grief can close the distance between the present and the worst days of your life, but it’s more admirable to struggle to talk through your problems than to pretend they’re not happening. And too many artists seem to think that their job is to make people feel good, when the task at hand is only to make them feel. Well, that is something Ed Sheeran always manages to do; and the same is the case with ‘Subtract’.

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