He’s one of the most commercially successful and prolific singer-songwriters of his generation – but it has taken a series of devastating events in his personal life for Ed Sheeran to truly turn his lyrical lens on himself and his own pain.
His new album, – (pronounced Subtract), arrives in the wake of much-publicised copyright infringement trials, the latest of which forced him to miss the funeral of his Irish grandmother; the death of his close friend, SB.TV founder Jamal Edwards; and his wife Cherry Seaborn being diagnosed with a tumour while she was pregnant with their second child.
The resulting album finds the English artist opening up to an extent that he hasn’t in years, if ever – from the stark commentary on mental health on ‘End Of Youth’ (“I’ve been lost since the teens, but pretend it’s all alright / All my ups led to falls that led to trying to end my life”), to his emotional reflections on his wife’s diagnosis on ‘Sycamore’.
Production by Aaron Dessner also results in a project that’s a deliberate departure from Sheeran’s previous album, the pop-heavy = (Equals). Naturally, comparisons will be made to the work that The National musician did on Taylor Swift’s Folklore, with both albums taking pop’s well-trodden back-to-basics path, and opting for organic-sounding, acoustic-centred ballads over the more upbeat fare that the artists were typically known for. Certainly, the songs on Subtract are unlikely to spawn music videos featuring Sheeran as a flying vampire in a pink suit, like his last album’s lead single.
‘The Hills Of Aberfeldy’, co-written with Bangor artist Foy Vance, draws inspiration from traditional music, without giving in to the excesses of ‘Galway Girl’ or ‘Nancy Mulligan’. Elsewhere, he’s tapping once again into the early ‘00s Irish singer-songwriter scene, which first informed his sound as a younger musician – with Lisa Hannigan even providing backing vocals on two bonus tracks.
Of course, Sheeran isn’t exactly ripping up his own songwriting rulebook, and despite the stripped-back approach, the songs largely follow predictable routes, and he occasionally sways into his well-established ‘first dance at a wedding’ territory more than once across the Deluxe Edition’s 18 tracks.
But you have to admire the vulnerability and genuine emotion that permeates Subtract. It’s an apt final instalment of the singer-songwriter’s ‘Mathematics’ album series, which first kicked off over a decade ago – dealing head-on with disillusionment and tragedy, as well as hope and growth.