Ed Sheeran is the man with a plan. So organised is he, in fact, that he had a full album schedule mapped out before the release of his 2011 debut, + (Plus), comprising EPs, collaborative projects, live tours… even a hiatus to save himself from burnout. Yet even he couldn’t have envisaged the events taking place this week, as he prepares to release his latest work. Ahead of – (Subtract), the final instalment in his maths-titled collection, the British singer-songwriter has been spending his time in a New York courthouse, defending himself against a copyright claim for the second time in as many years.
In what will come as an enormous relief to the 33-year-old, the jury decided that he did not plagiarise Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit “Let’s Get It On” for his 2014 single “Thinking Out Loud”. If you believe Sheeran’s recent Rolling Stone cover, the Gaye verdict (delivered mere hours before his album was scheduled to drop) was the only one he cared about – he claimed during the interview that he didn’t see the point in critics. Yet in the same interview, he guessed that Subtract would receive his best reviews to date.
It’s certainly a departure, of sorts, for the better. Instead of go-to collaborators Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid, who worked on Sheeran’s last four pop-oriented studio albums, he’s teamed up with Aaron Dessner, to whom he was introduced by his friend Taylor Swift (Dessner co-produced her Folklore and Evermore records). The National musician’s anti-major chord, damper-pedalled piano style is all over Subtract, which in turn harks back to the acoustic-leaning sound of Sheeran’s earliest work.
“Boat” is beautifully sparse, weaving guitars with a sombre double bass. Dessner’s pared-back approach to production works well with Sheeran’s simple song structures; the melodies have a palpable Swiftian cadence. Thematically, it’s all very unadventurous: weathering storms, changing seasons, growing with age. Some tracks are more successful than others. “Saltwater” suffers from oddly childish phrasing (“Now I’m standing on the edge/ Gazing into hell/ Or is it something else?/ I just can’t tell”), while its references to being “kissed” by the cold bite of the sea makes him sound like a very specific type of bore who spends the whole night at a party extolling the benefits of wild swimming.
Lyrically, the album does fall short, but then Sheeran has spent over a decade trading in vague yet universal issues. Heartbroken? Crushing on someone? Drinking with mates? He has you covered. Now he’s trying his best to open up. Single “Eyes Closed” is a lament for his friend Jamal Edwards, the SBTV entrepreneur who died last year aged 31. “End of Youth” wrestles with the conflicting joy of his child’s birth and the grief of losing a loved one, at the same time lashing out at so-called friends who disappeared in his darkest moments. His voice is weary, hoarse even; his delivery rarely strays from a husky lower register. (Except, that is, on “Borderline”, on which he aims rather ambitiously for an Enrique Iglesias falsetto.)
“Curtains” is Sheeran at his least predictable thanks to Dessner’s minor chord progressions and its nods to early Avril Lavigne-style grunge. But it’s also admirably candid. Sheeran sings both sides of the conversation, hearing the advice but not necessarily taking it: “Are you alright? Maybe don’t ask/ ‘Cause you know I never like to talk about that.” There’s a blunt reference to self-harm. And in between the cliches on “Spark” (“clear as a blue sky”, “light up the night sky”) and “Sycamore” (“emotions running wild”, “a smoking gun”), there are intriguing turns of phrase – “the blackbirds, they fly/ like a frown on the skyline” on “Borderline”.
He’d previously threatened a follow-up to “Galway Girl” – his approximation of an Irish ballad that was about as offensive as a pint of warm Guinness – but closer “The Hills of Aberfeldy” better recalls “I See Fire”, his folkloric contribution to The Hobbit soundtrack. There’s a whisper of the Irish fiddle, a strum of the banjo. For the most part, Subtract is testament to the old adage that less is, often, much more.
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