Ed Sheeran Takes on Death and Depression, Unflinchingly, in the Surprising ‘-’: Album Review

·10-min read

Well, that was the weirdest “album setup promo” week ever. Which is a cheeky way of saying that Ed Sheeran has gotten the amount of press that any artist could only dream of in the days leading up to a new release, albeit not for the project itself, but as the defendant in a copyright infringement trial that, after eight years after a lawsuit was first filed, coincidentally ended on the day before the release of his new record. In an instance of weird serendipity, the case did what a record company would hope any album-launch campaign would: it put the artist not just in the headlines but made him seem infinitely more likeable, given how much of the public was rooting for him to prevail, even people that never thought they liked Ed Sheeran.

So it should be feel like a victorious moment, right? Except that the new album in question, “-“ (which we will further render as “Subtract” for clarity purposes), is not the kind of album that lends itself to big grins and flashing the “V” sign. Quite the opposite: it’s as sharp a left turn into themes of death and depression as any pop superstar has ever made. The album is unflinching, in that regard, without any of the sops to “here’s a token banger for the radio” that you might expect from anyone with such a downtrodden collection to sell. So in that way, it fits right in with the less-than-ebullient speech that Sheeran made outside the courtoom Thursday right after the verdict exonerating him came in. Even with a righteous outcome, the case had been an eight-year waste of everyone’s time, he seemed to be saying — with a particularly bitter irony this past week, in that his testimony kept him from attending his beloved grandmother’s funeral in Ireland. Watching him on the steps mentioning that missed service, you couldn’t help but think that, for him, at least, “Subtract” must really feel ripped from today’s headlines right now… if the headlines are about death, not copyright law.

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In the end, it all comes down to mortal-coil infringement, right?

One point that kept coming up during the trial was that “Thinking Out Loud,” his disputed 2014 hit, couldn’t have had less to do with the supposedly plagiarized song, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” in its subject matter, which had to do with imagining love lasting into old age — “when your legs don’t work like they used to before… when my hands don’t play the strings the same way…  my memory fades.” (The 23-year-old Sheeran pegged this decrepitude in the song as something that would occur by age 70, a notion that seems youthfully naïve and quaint now that everyone’s seen Willie Nelson kill it at 90.) But the main impetus behind “Subtract” can be boiled down to: What if we don’t make it to 70? What if we don’t all make it to 35?

Two grim precipitating events probably need to be understood before taking in the new album. (Anyone who is a fan, or who took in any of the publicity for “The Sum of It All,” the four-part Sheeran Disney+ docuseries that premiered Wednesday, already knows them.) In February 2022, the singer lost one of his best friends and earliest champions, Jamal Edwards, who succumbed to a heart attack at 31. In very short order, Sheeran’s wife was diagnosed with a tumor, while pregnant with their second daughter, a condition that caused treatment that otherwise would have begun immediately to be delayed. Perhaps ironically, he’d just had a minor hit about six months before with a song about death called “Visiting Hours,” inspired by the passing of a professional colleague. Although a tearjerker for some fans, that tune was a sentimentalized vision of the veil separating this world from an afterlife. When it came time last year to write about death — and possible deaths — hitting even closer to home, Sheeran found himself writing much more pragmatically, and from a position of depression and anxiety. Not a lot of punches are pulled in the new album: Grief and dread have left him in a bad place, and a placid acceptance is about as close as he’s going to come to his formerly spiritual take, for now.

At the risk of being glib, you could suppose that he tempted fate by having planned for a decade to call this particular album in his release cycle “Subtract.” It really is largely about subtraction — the extraction of souls, themselves! — no thanks to the possible death cluster he saw developing in his life. There’s been a happier ending since, with Sheeran’s wife, Cherry Seaborn, has been declared cancer-free. But Sheeran doesn’t seem to have waited for that before writing most or nearly all of this collection in the midst of the mourning and uncertainty. There’s just one song on the record, “The Hills of Aberfeldy” (the closing cut on the 24-track standard edition), which dates back before 2022 to previous versions of “Subtract” that Sheeran was planning. Presumably, the original plan would have been to include songs about lost love, and love not lost to death. Maybe he’ll revisit some of those cutting-room-floor tracks when he starts using his words again for album titles. (“-“ is said to be the last one that’ll be signified with a mathematical marker, before Sheeran is forced to really get algebraic on our asses.)

So how is it, anyway? In a word: pretty. Very pretty (in two words). Like super-swallowable meds, the grief goes down easy when Sheeran is setting aside his hip-hop-loving side, breaking out his acoustic guitar and doing what he does best at the end of the day, which is create melodies so lilting, you’d swear you’ve heard them before. (Allusion to current events intended.) Without going quite so far as to call it “easy listening,” “Subtract” is never nearly as much of a hard listen as descriptions of its themes make it sound on math paper. His first-time partner for the entire project is producer and co-writer Aaron Dessner, famously of the National, maybe even more famously these last few years of “Folklore.” It was more of a stretch for Dessner to take Taylor Swift to an acoustic-based sound than it is here with Sheeran, who’s always had a ‘70s-based soft-rock sound as his core one, his further trip-hop and synth-pop leanings notwithstanding. His staying with this basic style over the length of a 42-minute album (plus much longer deluxe editions) might be a dream come true for the segment of fans that digs him most in his lovely balladic mode, even if he’s entered a lyrical mode that forestalls the chances of these particular tracks becoming wedding songs.

The danger in (understandably) sticking to this downshifting sound is that the songs don’t all distinguish themselves from one another on initial listens. Dessner is adept at providing a wash of a sound that can sound a little samey over the course of a long set, even if acoustic guitar plucking dominates on one track and it’s piano or quiet synths on another. Taking the album in in large doses instead of small ones, you might wish that at least occasionally the music became as raw as Sheeran’s words often are. There’s one terrific track, “Curtains,” where electric guitars and an uptick in the pace threaten to provide some real catharsis halfway through the record. Threaten is the operative word, becaue Dessner and mixer Jonathan Low keep those guitars low in the mix — maybe to the detriment of the tune itself, although not to making it feel more of a piece with the album’s otherwise mellow mood.

The album has a few other moments that briefly affect, if not necessarily break, the spell, like bringing in Max Martin and Shellback as co-writer/producers on a single track, “Eyes Closed.” (It doesn’t go so far afield to be a real outlier; no one will mistake it for “Style.”) Meanwhile, there’s one truly hopeful-sounding song, “Dusty,” and it’s not shying away from the album’s mostly darker side to say that this one might be its best, as a pure listening experience. The track is about escaping from the harsher stuff life is bringing by doing repeated needle drops on Dusty Springfield’s classic “Dusty in Memphis” album with his toddler daughter, and the joy in experiencing her reaction to Springfield’s voice and vibe. In the subgenre of “records that are about other records,” this is a real keeper.

But Sheeran must be a fan of really abrupt transitions, if he’s the one who sequenced the album. Because the utterly pleasant afterglow that is left by “Dusty” is immediately followed by a segue into “End of Youth,” a song about how death represents the true end of the innocence, with apologies to Don Henley. “I’ve been depressed since you left / Tried to fill the hole with wine / Stopped the drugs when she came / Cleaned up my act overnight.” (Actually, maybe the reference to quitting drugs when his first child was born does provide a segue from the previous number, in its fashion.) Reflecting further on his friend’s death, Sheeran asks: “Is this the ending of our youth, when pain starts taking over?… When love is real, there’s never closure… We spend our youth with arms and hearts wide open, and then the dark gets in and that’s the end of youth.”

Now, maybe an editor’s pen would have Sheeran using the word “youth” one or two less times than he does. And listeners who are a little older than Sheeran, and/or have had more up-close experiences with death and grief, may shrug at a song like this and say: Hey, welcome to the club, kid. But it would be cynical to undervalue Sheeran for putting that first real true understanding of morality for a young person into words, even crudely formed ones, that will be therapeutic for others undergoing that same rude awakening.

One of the strong points of “Subtract” is how little sugar-coating Sheeran tries to put on his rough 2022, even as he provides a few leavening songs, like “Colourblind,” that speak more generally to his love for his wife, and not just the prospect of her loss. Otherwise, it’s “Life Goes On,” as a seventh-stage-of-grief song title, and “Right now I feel I’m running from the light,” as an overriding sentiment, that represent an essentially un-Pollyanna-ish approach toward the toughest issues anyone — and everyone — faces in a lifetime. It takes some commercial courage to put this out, and perhaps won’t prove too daunting a left turn, on the way to not just thinking but living out loud. If the next album is filled with “Bad Habit, Parts II, III and IV,” maybe he’s earned it.

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