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Album Review: Ed Sheeran’s “Subtract” is an addition to his growth as an artist

A day after singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran wins his copyright case, he releases his sixth studio album “Subtract” or “-”. With this title, he now has albums named after the five, most basic math symbols. After years of dabbling in upbeat pop songs, Sheeran takes a step back to produce a well-rounded lyrical acoustic album, subtracting the style of music that did exceedingly well on the charts. 

“Subtract” actually conceptualizes the album as Sheeran suffers from the loss of one of his close friends, Jamal Edwards. Several songs off the album share the emotions and experience he has gone through following his friend’s death as well as his struggles with depression and other harrowing experiences, making this album his most solemn yet.

Sheeran joins forces with The National’s Aaron Dessner, who has also produced much of Taylor Swift’s new music, to produce and write several of the tracks. There is simply nobody better to collaborate with to create this somber album than the person who had a hand in creating albums like “folklore” and “evermore”. With Dessner’s hands-on production, he brings in his signature instrumental elements like distant drum beats, subtle strings and hazy keyboard chords. 

“Boat”, the album’s opening track, shares the resilience of someone going through difficult experiences. Sheeran creates this metaphor that these harsh experiences are like waves while he is on the boat, riding them through. The resilience comes strongest through the repetition of lyrics, “But the waves won’t break my boat / But the waves won’t break my boat.” 

Watery metaphors are consistent throughout the album, with early tracks like “Saltwater” and “Life Goes On” also containing water symbolism. With lyrics like, “The waves came tumbling down / As you float away, I’m reaching for ya” and “I’m free in salt water / Embrace the deep and leave everything”, it thoroughly epitomizes the saddening experiences of grief.  

The lead single off the album, “Eyes Closed”, contains a bit of Sheeran’s familiar style of pop with a memorable upbeat hook, but the grief-stricken lyrics make the song more resounding and powerful. He sings, “Still dancing with my eyes closed / ‘Cause everywhere I look, I still see you.”  In a distinct way, it has the feel of an older Sheeran song, while also feeling as though a new path is set for Sheeran, lyric wise. 

The latter half of the album focuses on the other devastating experience he went through, the themes of the album focusing more so on his pregnant wife being diagnosed with a tumor that could not be treated until she was able to give birth. “Sycamore” particularly was a song that solely encapsulated this experience of his, as he sings, “In the waiting room, emotions running wild / worried ‘bout my lover and I’m worried ‘bout our child.” Other songs seem to be dedicated to his wife, including the slightly optimistic “Vega”

While most of the songs were written during the past year following his current experiences, the last song off the album, “The Hills of Aberfeldy”, was written 10 years ago. It consists of traditional Celtic and folk sounds, while relaying a love that he wishes he could have, singing “Darling, we could fall in love ‘neath the hills of Aberfeldy.” It stands out amongst other songs in regard to its sound and a theme that does not necessarily match the rest of the album, though it is still one of the most enjoyable songs off the album. 

Sheeran’s depression as a whole plays a part in the album’s overall theme, with several songs portraying his lows. Doing so is a strong artistic choice on his end, depicting his mental health in his music as a therapeutic method rather than trying to shoot for chart-toppers.   

All in all, Sheeran’s newest addition to his mathematical entourage is the one that makes the most sense with its designated symbol. Following his untimely losses and depression, Sheeran sets up his most poignant and confrontative music to date, in what is his most grown up album. The lack of his formulaic top-charting pop songs is deeply excused with the messages that he wants and needs to get off his chest, while letting others like him resonate with the grief and depression he has exuded. Sheeran quite literally subtracts himself from the artist he used to be, and this album is moreso an addition to whom he truly wants to be. 


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