His genius is to take very personal experiences and channel them into songs which anyone can relate to, making an album that will provide succour to many in trying times
Ed Sheeran has had a tough couple of years. Last year, his best friend Jamal Edwards suddenly died, and then his wife was diagnosed with a tumour – something that couldn’t receive treatment until she’d given birth to their daughter. He’s also had a couple of high-profile court appearances, fighting accusations of plagiarism, and, if all that wasn’t enough, had the indignity of watching Matt Hancock sing his song Perfect in the celebrity jungle to a stand-up comedian.
It’s no surprise then that – (Subtract), the last of Sheeran’s albums to feature a mathematical symbol as its title, so bad news for anyone who had Pythagoras’ Theorem as his next effort, is a downbeat affair. There’s no sign of any hip-hop influences, detours into rock or any Pharrell collaboration – instead, this is an album for anyone who fell in love with Sheeran’s ballads: which, given his phenomenal, stadium-filling, success over the last decade is an awful lot of people.
And while you wouldn’t wish Sheeran’s troubles over the past year on anyone, it has resulted in a record very much from the heart. Previously, it was almost like Sheeran’s songwriting was written with one eye already on its marketing potential – Supermarket Flowers was tailored to be played at a funeral, Perfect has soundtracked many a first dance at a wedding, even the terrible Galway Girl receives an annual play at Irish pubs every St Patrick’s Day. However, on – it’s clear that this is an album written by Sheeran purely for himself.
And it works, mostly. Recruiting Aaron Dessner of The National as co-writer and producer to work the same sort of magic that he worked on Taylor Swift‘s Folklore and Evermore is a smart move. Opening track Boat is pretty much an acoustic ballad, and the stripped-back sound suits Sheeran’s voice well, while Salt Water is even more downbeat, with lyrical motifs of despair (“Embrace the deep and leave everything”) and lines like “I’m standing on the edge, gazing into hell”. Try playing that at a wedding.
An entire album of this would probably be too much, and thankfully someone who knows pop music like Sheeran does recognises this. Two of the most successful pop producers of our age in Max Martin and Fred Again… are drafted in to give Eyes Closed an almost anthemic feel, even if the lyrics are all about bereavement and dealing with grief.
Sheeran’s genius is to take these very personal experiences and channel them into songs which anyone can relate to. Life Goes On is a song that may well fall into cliche, but it would also be comforting for anyone dealing with grief. Vega even sees Sheeran sat cross-legged listening to vinyl records while the rain pours down outside – a scene that could be cut from a romantic comedy for being a bit too on the nose – but lines inspired by his wife’s cancer diagnosis (“If we believe, then she’ll get better”) will strike a chord with anyone in a similar position.
Although the songs on – never really rise above a mild trot, there’s still some musical variety. Curtains has a surprising swagger to it, while End Of Youth nods back to his early days with some quickfire vocal delivery. Some tracks do occasionally backfire, with Colourblind slipping into bland formula, while Sheeran’s shift into James Blunt-esque falsetto on Borderline is a bit grating.
Dessner makes a good foil for Sheeran, even if the album itself does run a little too long (the ‘deluxe’ version clocking in at 18 tracks with a running time of over an hour). Ultimately though, none of Sheeran’s many fans will care about that, as this is a record which will provide succour to many in trying times and is another Sheeran product with success stamped all over it.