Ed Sheeran: – (Subtract) album review: amounts to less than the sum of its parts

·2-min read
Ed Sheeran  (Annie Leibovitz)
Ed Sheeran (Annie Leibovitz)

Ed Sheeran ought to be celebrating as he reaches the end of his mathematical symbols album series with – (Subtract). Beginning with + all the way back in 2011, you’d definitely need a calculator to get your head around album sales of over 150 million, song streaming figures commonly in the multiple billions and a world tour second only to Elton John’s as the highest grossing of all time.

Instead, as the weary acoustic strum of Boat opens his fifth album, he’s in a dark place. He’s been in court defending himself against song theft accusations for the second time in just over a year, this time in the US, where the estate of the co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On claims that Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud counts as copyright infringement.

A recent tearful interview in Rolling Stone magazine found him talking about the death last year of his best friend, music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards, discovering while his wife Cherry Seaborn was pregnant that she needed an operation on a tumour, and confessing to an eating disorder.

So it may disappoint fans of his chirpier fare to learn that the gently percussive guitar of the single Eyes Closed, which finds him “holding back these tears while my friends are somewhere else,” is the liveliest thing here. It looks on the surface that this is an attempt by Sheeran – never a critical darling – to match the praise won by Taylor Swift for her lockdown-friendly diversions into moody indie folk, Folklore and Evermore. Like Swift, his musical backdrop has been provided by Aaron Dessner from arty indie band The National. The muted piano notes of Salt Water and restrained strings of Sycamore sound very familiar.

Even so, perhaps because Sheeran started out as an acoustic artist and none of his albums are short on ballads, these songs sound like less of a departure than Swift following the dayglo pop of her Lover album with Folklore. Borderline feels a bit different, his boy band voice acquiring a fragile, emotional falsetto. End of Youth is the bleakest moment, with keening violin and a heavy synth drone while he admits: “All my ups led to falls that led to try to end my life.”

But fatherhood keeps him optimistic on Dusty and Curtains, and his reliance on obvious metaphors – he’s forever listening to rain, fighting the tide and being battered by waves – means it rarely feels like he’s expressing uniquely personal pain. Subtract amounts to less than the sum of its parts.