Indisputable records have consistently been broken, the digits scaling higher and higher as each release looms. Over the years he’s accumulated scores of sell-out stadium dates, a Glastonbury headline slot, and incalculable streams (the entirety of 2017’s ÷ (Divide) managed to chart forcing new rules for streamed albums) but finally, we have the end to the series of albums he began with his 2011 debut album + (Plus). His fifth and final mathematical gambit, – (Subtract) feels apt given his penchant for reducing genres to generic, gentrified hits.
Few names have permeated the musical culture of the 10s and 20s as Sheeran. His fingerprints are all over various hits and albums across the decades – too many to mention in fact. This time around things are supposed to be different. For, what has been described as his “most personal album yet” he’s enlisted the help of current producer extraordinaire Aaron Dessner – The National guitarist who has been on a bit of a hot streak lately.
With Dessner already having assisted Taylor Swift on her Folklore and Evermore pandemic albums, to agreed critical and fan acclaim alike, his ability to ingratiate with a superstar and pick out the emotional rawness through delicate compositions and considered intrigue has been proven. Sheeran’s turn appears to be an attempt for the megastar to hone in on something more delicate, but sadly doesn’t quite hit the mark. When you’ve bet your entire career on being approachable and singular – one man and his guitar – the notion that you’re now digging deeper presents its own pitfalls.
Dessner’s touch is muted but apparent. Orchestral flourishes and
sparse compositions bring a dimension that without would’ve surrendered Subtract
to an even worse fate – being straight-up forgettable. Chart fodder
(“Eyes Open”) aside, Sheeran’s attempts at personal – down to a Rolling
Stone U.K. cover that embarks on muddying his press-removed clear waters
in which he decried the need for critical opinion – are in no doubt. Amongst the acoustic arrangements and typical beats
he’s happy to let the wallowing waves wash over him which, given the
2022 he had, including the loss of longtime supporter and close friend
Jamal Edwards, feels absolutely necessary.
Leaning heavily into the coastal imagery (the album was recorded on the Kent coast, with music videos also filmed in his home county of Suffolk), it’s enough to
be noticeable and question why he didn’t embrace it in totality and
go for a concept album of some degree – at least such ideas would have
brought some form of artistic merit. Instead, we’re left with 14 songs
that, as promised, deliver a more personal side of Sheeran, who pens
ruminative statements such as “Is this the ending of our youth when pain
starts taking over?” (“End of Youth”) yet he still alludes us through
pop songwriting that is convinced emotions need to be dressed up as repetitive pedestrian motifs and served up on a silver platter.
The release is also coupled with a documentary series on Disney+ which bolsters this personal connection by removing the pretense. But where The Sum Of It All lays Sheeran bare, Subtract fails to land the same impression. It doesn’t follow his usual routine, but it certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Given his size as an act – arguably too big to fail at this juncture – it throws into question why he doesn’t at least attempt some form of progress. His good pal Swift has proved you can top charts and fill stadiums while serving a grander artistic purpose. Yet Sheeran seems happy to play to the masses with his own by-the-book formula that even when it employs the hottest new indie producer, still feels lost.
“Life Goes On” feels like the forlorn answer to “Thinking Out Loud” (the song Sheeran incorrectly finds himself successfully defending in court the week of release). “Colourblind” acts as a paint-by-numbers for emotions, with a sickly sweet xylophone incorporated to hammer home its heart-string-tugging ideas. “Dusty” proves Sheeran is a ‘real music listener’ by referencing listening to records after he softly floats the idea to “flick a finger” and pick one. The most poignant moment comes in “Sycamore” where he deals with his wife’s cancer diagnosis during their second pregnancy as he ponders “Darling what will become of you and me?”
While Sheeran is adept at molding himself to fit genres – be it reggaeton (“Sigue” with J Balvin), rap (“Take Me Back To London”, rock (“Bad Habits ft Bring Me The Horizon”), acoustic ballads (“Perfect”), or his beloved magnolia pop (“Shape Of You”) – with these surface-level excursions, it’s akin to a child choosing this year’s must-have Halloween costume – while it might be fun, the real fear is in the grip he has on culture. The only thing he’s yet to truly attempt is being himself, it often feels as if the connection is present but the success beckons every move rather than a grander purpose leading to moments that fail to launch.
In the final calculation of his mathematical series, the biggest problem to work out is what it was all for. Adding one more piece to the four chart-busting albums already in the sequence equals the unstoppable Ed Sheeran continuing as he always has – expertly pushing the numbers to new highs, but inevitably leaving larger questions unanswered.