Ed Sheeran ends his mathematical run with his rawest album yet

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Ed Sheeran, – (Subtract)

When Ed Sheeran’s debut single The A Team climbed to the top of the Australian charts in 2011, the hefty themes couldn’t have fully sunk in for a naive 11-year-old. But the song spoke to a sadness even a younger version of me could connect with.

Fast-forward 12 years – through death, heartache and grief – and that song, along with pop-folk numbers like Supermarket Flowers (2017) and Visiting Hours (2021) from Sheeran’s previous albums, began to hit home even more. But it’s not just his fans getting older.

Ed Sheeran strips back the flamboyance and leans into vulnerability on his new album.Credit: AP

Those heavy experiences mark the start of adult life, Sheeran says in a video describing the inspiration behind his new track End of Youth. Candid and soulful, it’s a song that epitomises the essence of his latest album Subtract. “Everything’s falling apart, when love is real, there’s never closure, I guess it’s all part of life but I can’t help but feel low,” Sheeran sings.

The English singer-songwriter is perhaps best recognised for catchy tunes Shape of You (2017), Sing (2014) and Don’t (2014). But Subtract strips back the flamboyance, leans into vulnerability and shines the spotlight on Sheeran’s vocals.

Eyes Closed, another single released ahead of the album’s launch, sees the Grammy-winning artist draw on both a tender head voice and an ability to belt with startling passion. It’s the closest, sonically, to some of his earlier works in the Divide (2017) era, with a similar muted beat to Shape of You running through, and with vocals loosely reminiscent of Perfect. Rather than a sexy or serenading score, however, Eyes Closed pays tribute to Sheeran’s close friend, Jamal Edwards, who died in February last year.

It’s one of the events Sheeran says sparked a complete overhaul of the album. A decade-long labour of “trying to sculpt the perfect acoustic album” was scratched and displaced by a week’s worth of work at the beginning of 2022 following a series of events that changed his life and mental health. After that, Sheeran says he wrote without thought of what the songs would be and “just wrote whatever tumbled out.”

In Sycamore, the 32-year-old sings about finding out his pregnant wife has a malignant tumour. At some points, the lyrics sound incongruous with the melody, distracting from the striking vulnerability of the song. No Strings, the track directly after it, is a more sonically cohesive piece also inspired by the ordeal he and his wife went through, while bonus track Toughest picks up the pace on the same theme, with a powerful, pulsing beat and electric guitar coursing through it, marking a high point on the album. “When love is on our side, there’s just no way to lose, but I still can’t help but break down,” Sheeran sings.

For those looking for a touch of reprieve amid the pain, there’s Dusty, inspired by his first daughter, which incorporates soft, playful electric sounds, a head-bopping beat and references to sunshine and smiles.

Subtract is Sheeran’s fifth studio album and the final piece in his formula of mathematics-themed album names which started with + (Plus) in 2011. Produced and largely co-written with The National’s Aaron Dessner, who helmed Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning turn towards quiet contemplation on 2020’s Folklore and Evermore, many of Subtract’s songs are subdued and thoughtful reflections likely to find their place in quiet nights at home rather than in the flashing lights of nightclubs.

For the most part, the album is a raw contemplation of life’s lowest moments. It lets go of the need to be perfect, hip or technically savvy, allowing for a honing in on Sheeran’s heartfelt vocals and lyrics. As we get older, there’s a sense of relief in knowing none of us are alone in feeling the sadness, anxiety and darkness of life’s unexpected events. If you’re not afraid to sit with your sadness, this album could be your next muse.

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