For an artist initially pegged as an acoustic troubadour – albeit one with a foot in the grime world – Ed Sheeran has displayed an impressive ability to expand and remodel his sound. He trailed his second album, 2014’s ‘x’, with an R&B banger co-written by Pharrell Williams (‘Sing’) and launched his fourth, 2021’s ‘=’, with an electro bop (‘Bad Habits’) that owed an equal debt to The Weekend and ’80s synth-pop group Bronski Beat. But ‘-’ (pronounced Subtract), the fifth and final album of the so-called “mathematical era” that essentially covers Sheeran’s entire major label career, definitely feels different. It’s doleful and downbeat, melancholy and heartfelt, and doesn’t contain anything as crass as 2017’s cod-Irish folk song ‘Galway Girl’.
When Sheeran announced this album in March, he said pretty candidly: “For the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like; I’m merely putting something out that’s honest and true to where I am in my adult life.” Sheeran gives short shrift to the music critics who have often dismissed him – “Why do you need to read a review? Listen to it. It’s freely available!” he said recently – and has been defending himself in court against accusations of plagiarism. He even said this week that he will be “done” with music if he were to lose the case pertaining to alleged similarities between his 2015 hit ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and Marvin Gaye’s soul classic ‘Let’s Get It On’. Yesterday (May 4), it was ruled by US court that he had not copied the song.
However, ‘-‘ sprung from even weightier problems. In his album announcement, Sheeran revealed that it was written during a period when he was “spiralling through fear, depression and anxiety” after losing his best friend, SB.TV founder Jamal Edwards, and learning that his pregnant wife Cherry had been diagnosed with a tumour that couldn’t be treated until after she gave birth. Both devastating events loom large over 48 minutes that contain Sheeran’s most despondent songwriting to date. “We spend our youth with arms and hearts wide open,” the 32-year-old sings on the pointedly titled ‘End Of Youth’. “And then the dark gets in and that’s the end of youth.”
Sheeran’s main collaborator here is one who will definitely impress sniffier critics: The National‘s Aaron Dessner, the abundantly talented musician and producer who helped Taylor Swift to unlock her inner indie-folk singer on 2021’s stunning ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’ albums. Dessner’s understated sonic palette of strummed acoustic guitars, soft piano chords, unobtrusive strings and light electronic beats is an ideal accompaniment for Sheeran’s pained confessionals. For the most part, ‘-‘ feels like a warm but cautious hug from a sensitive friend – Dessner gives Sheeran space to say what’s on his mind without trying to crowd him. Of course, because this is a Sheeran album, it’s also impeccably melodic from beginning to end. ‘Dusty’ has a stunning middle eight that many artists would probably have repurposed as a chorus.
That song, on which Sheeran sings touchingly about listening to Dusty Springfield with his daughter, subtly acknowledging the healing power of music, is a sprightlier standout track. ‘Curtains’, which also has a springier rhythm, plus rock guitars that recall The Cranberries and a genuinely anthemic chorus, sounds like a future single, too. But most of ‘-’ is doggedly one-paced, an often drawback of Dessner’s mellow production stylings. If it becomes a little samey in places, it could be argued that this is an authentic representation of the mental health issues Sheeran was working through at the time. Certainly, some of his lyrical refrains – breaking waves, falling tears – add to the impression that ‘-‘ is an unfiltered snapshot of this artist’s mindset at an especially low ebb.
At times, he writes with striking specificity. Sheeran has spoken recently about giving up drinking because the habit became “bad vibes” for him. It’s no surprise, then, that ‘-’ contains lyrics that reference his tendency to use alcohol as a crutch: “They’re shutting the bar, they’re cleaning the floor,” he sings on ‘Eyes Closed’. “And everyone is already home, but I’m on my own.” It’s an extraordinarily sad, solitary picture of an artist who packed 450,000 people into Wembley Stadium over five nights last summer. ‘Sycamore’ is even more startling in the way it juxtaposes images of Sheeran and his family enjoying a summer’s day in the garden with a moment of total anguish in a hospital. “Right now in the waiting room, emotions running wild,” he sings, “Worried ’bout my lover and I’m worried ’bout our child.” It’s a reminder that Sheeran has built his career not just on undeniable pop hooks, but also on his ability to capture life’s milestones in such intimate ways.
In fact, the only potentially disingenuous moment comes on the closing track ‘Hills Of Aberfeldy’, an otherwise lovely folk ballad. “Darling we could fall in love ‘neath the hills of Aberfeldy,” he sings, perhaps enjoying that faux-poetic “neath” a bit too much. Then again, it’s hard to blame Sheeran for wanting to end his bleakest LP on a sweetly sentimental note. It’s a sign, hopefully, that he has come through the worst of a rough patch that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.
- Release date: May 5, 2023
- Record label: Atlantic