Every now and then a Tweet goes viral clowning Ed Sheeran’s everyman appearance juxtaposed against Beyoncé’s shimmering grandeur at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival: Mandel 100 concert. That snapshot of the two Grammy-winning superstars has spawned a litany of discourse that has been recycled and repackaged too many times to count. Nonetheless, it’s a smart entry point into understanding how Ed Sheeran approaches the concept of image, and how those choices inform his revelatory, and sometimes monotonous, new album – (Subtract).
From his 2011 debut, Ed Sheeran has maneuvered the pop music scene as the red-haired acoustic singer-songwriter antithesis to the teen-pop froth of Justin Bieber, the moody genre mutations of The Weeknd, and the traditionalist showmanship of Bruno Mars. When it came to Ed, the shiny costumes and bombastic choreography of his contemporaries were replaced by dog whistles of musical “authenticity” – self-penned songs, formidable talent as an instrumentalist, and production choices that prioritized simplicity over experimentation. Operating in the acoustic pop singer-songwriter space comes with the assumption that your art is a genuine and honest reflection of your life, heart, and soul. So, when Ed likens Subtract to “opening the trapdoor into [his] soul,” the sentiment falls flat because that’s the entire point of the singer-songwriter brand. Subtract, which Ed describes as “the first time… [he’s] not trying to craft an album people will like,” simply doesn’t work as a statement Stripped-Back Acoustic Album™ because Ed’s entire career has been the premiere representation of Stripped-Back Acoustic music in mainstream contemporary pop. Nonetheless, the album works much better as an unflinching exploration of the labyrinthine ramifications of grief and loss. Colored by his wife’s mid-pregnancy cancer diagnosis, the loss of his dear friend Jamal Edwards, and the long-brewing “Thinking Out Loud”/“Let’s Get It On” copyright lawsuit, Subtract features Ed’s ever-consistent ear for melody, some of his most biting and insightful songwriting yet, and compounding sonic influences that impress as much as they befuddle.
Heavily inspired by the Kent coastline, Ed spends much of Subtract wading through aquatic metaphors. On album opener “Boat,” he peppers his vocal inflections with hints of Irish folk sensibilities to bolster lyrics like “They say that all scars will heal, but I know / Maybe I won’t / But the waves won’t break my boat.” “Salt Water,” one of the more immediate Subtract standouts, continues that lyric-vocal throughline with a gloomy melody that cradles such harrowing lyrics as “Now, I’m standing on the edge, gazing into hell / Or is it somethin’ else? I just can’t tell / When there’s nothin’ left, I close my eyes and take one step.” A stark look at the intensity of suicidal ideation, “Salt Water” finds Ed finally sinking his teeth into songwriting material that rejects the banality of his last record.
Aaron Dessner, who’s on a somewhat unlikely hot streak thanks to his work with The National and Taylor Swift (he was a primary collaborator on both her Folklore and Evermore albums), boasts production credits on each one of Subtract’s fourteen tracks. Most of the pair’s collaborations are fine guitar-centric pop songs, but, at times, their talents converge for some effective production choices. Take the pounding drums leading into the bridge of “End Of Youth,” a rollicking distant cousin of “Castle On The Hill,” or the more forceful rock feel of “Curtains,” for example. As is now expected, if not necessary, for an Ed Sheeran album, Subtract is substantially infused with a healthy dose of schmaltz. The Subtract song most successful in showcasing Sheeran’s specific brand of schmaltz is “Colourblind,” a starry-eyed waltz that blends an “Ave Maria”-evoking piano melody with lyrics that lean into a synesthesia metaphor to relay the boundlessness of forever love. For every moment of triumph that the Sheeran-Dessner union secures, there are just as many instances that are middling at best. “Life Goes On” and “Spark” are a pair of nondescript tracks that leave as quickly as they arrive, and “Dusty,” a hiccupping memorialization of Dusty Springfield-indebted daddy-daughter bonding, is far too apprehensive with its flirtations with electronica to leave any sort of lasting impression.
Subtract is overwhelmingly downtempo. So much so that gems in the album’s back half (like “Vega” and “Sycamore”) start to crumble under the looming monotony of so many successive ballads. Nevertheless, by the time Subtract reaches “The Hills Of Aberfeldy,” the Irish folk influences reemerge to bring the album to a hopeful close. There isn’t anything on Subtract that synthesizes the vastness of grief and catharsis into a bite-sized pop song as accurately and as effortlessly as “Eyes Closed,” but, even at its least impressive, Subtract is a respectable return to form for Ed Sheeran after 2021’s = (Equals).
Ed Sheeran is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.