Ed Sheeran recently released his fifth studio album titled Subtract on Friday, May 5 to a mixture of critical reviews. While this would have completed Sheeran’s mathematical based album titles, he’s shared that the the album we know as Subtract was written quickly and not at all what he had originally pictured for the album leaving the series feeling incomplete.
Sheeran spoke with Rolling Stone where he detailed that he actually wrote most of Subtract, but quickly scrapped it after a series of unexpected and devastating moments in his personal life. In 2021, Sheeran’s wife, Cherry Seaborn, was diagnosed with cancer in her arm while pregnant. Shortly after, Sheeran’s best friend and music world staple Jamal Edwards died. With such a difficult few months, it’s no wonder Sheeran chose to rework Subtract into the album we have today. Subtract is an exploration of grief, anxiety, and depression through the lens of music. Sheeran has long been known for his incredible songwriting talent and once he began working with producer Aaron Dessner, Sheeran stated that the album developed very quickly.
Sheeran’s unique sound shines with a new light on this album. In a world where artists are expected to reinvent their entire sound with every album, it shouldn’t be viewed as a flaw to know the distinct style and sound for an artist. Anyone picking up an Ed Sheeran album knows he’s going to bring heavy guitar and keyboard features to compliment his exceptional abilities to capture the human experience in his lyrics. Where many in the world know Sheeran for his hits like “Shape of You,” “Thinking Out Loud,” and “Bad Habits,” Subtract takes on a softer tone while still providing one hell of a lyrical story in every single song.
Hailing from Suffolk on the West Coast of England, Sheeran’s choice in lyrical and visual inspiration for this album seem a natural choice. The imagery of Subtract is filled with references of the sea and the album opener is a perfect example. Grief is often described as feeling like drowning, searching for air when you don’t know up from down. It’s a metaphor that feels familiar, something I think was important when tackling such a heavy topic. Sheeran has spoken openly about feeling like he was drowning after Jamal’s death, and this stripped back opener encompasses both the attempt to find air and the sensation of drowning in grief. Sheeran cleverly juxtaposes hopeful lyrics like “I need to feel elements to remind me/ There’s beauty when it’s bleak” and “the waves won’t break my boat” with darker ones such as “The more that I love/ the less that I feel” and “They say that all scars will heal, but I know/ Maybe I won’t.”
In the end, Sheeran’s choice to strip back the song to raw vocals and guitar make this song’s message hit even harder and reminds us that sometimes the simple things are what keep us going.
“Salt Water”s production picks up from that on Boat with more melancholic elements to compliment the heartbreaking message of the song. “Salt Water” is a dark look at how close grief and stress can push us to the edge. Visually, Sheeran stands on the edge of a rock and lyrically contemplates what it would feel like to take that step and plunge into the water. “Feel the wind’s harsh refrain/Like the clouds gripped my face/ Saying “It’s alright to run from all this pain.” The chorus evokes the sensation of actually hitting the salt water below as the musical accompaniment picks up. The ebb and flow of the song feels very much like being in the ocean as the waves toss you about. Furthermore, Sheeran’s expressive vocal delivery (as with every song) makes sure every emotion he’s describing is felt deeply by the listener.
Many of the songs on this album are amazing, but “Eyes Closed” was definitely the perfect choice for lead single. It features a more upbeat production with a stellar vocal performance. Every song on this album is vulnerable, and “Eyes Closed” brings us straight into Sheeran’s mindset after losing his friend. Anyone who has lost someone close to them understands the message of this song. “I’m still holding back these tears/ While my friends are somewhere else.” It’s impossible not to feel the loss no matter where he goes, to the bar or around town. Expecting to see a lost loved one is something that doesn’t fade once they are gone, so we close our eyes in the hopes it will help. Still dancing, still functioning but expecting to see them or talk to them until it comes flooding back. Sheeran’s grief is palpable and will undoubtedly resonate with listeners.
“Life Goes On”
“Life Goes On” is another track that harkens back to some of Sheeran’s earlier work and capitalizes on his signature sound. Once again stripped back to Sheeran and his guitar, the vocal performance and lyrics really shine. “Easy come, hard go/ Then life goes on” is one of the more powerful lyrics. Life is easy to come into and hard to leave, but then it somehow continues on after loss.
Sheeran has shared that “Dusty” was inspired by his usual morning with his daughter. They pick a vinyl out and listen to it together. In this case, Dusty refers to Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis.” This song is an uplifting note in the overall theme of the album. When played through, the first four tracks feel like the initial plunge into darkness and “Dusty” is that moment you break the surface again. It might be okay and little moments (like listening to music with a happy child) can help get you through the darker times.
“End of Youth”
Arguably the most powerful track on the album both in production and lyrically, Sheeran marries his rap and singing abilities to create this masterpiece. It’s a stark look at grief but asks the powerful question of when youth ends. I’d agree with Sheeran that it’s one thing to grow up and function as an adult, but it’s another to face real loss and continue with life. “We spend our youth with arms and hearts wide open/ But then the dark gets in and that’s the end of youth.”
Sheeran argues that it’s not simply age that forces our youth to end, it’s loss. Whether you are 13 or 30, youth ends the second you lose a loved one. Children who lose parents, are no longer truly children ever again and the same could be said regardless of age. Deep, unrelenting grief creates an irrevocable loss of innocence and that’s the message that Sheeran delivers with expert skill.
Another song featuring simpler production, “Colourblind” explores the emotions of loss while also having a bright spot in life, namely for Sheeran his wife and children. He keeps falling into the dark blues but she brings him the brighter colors that balance out the darkness he’s experiencing. It’s simple in it’s metaphors but evokes vivid mental images of simply letting those colors go and simply being colourblind, seeing just each other together.
Easily the most upbeat track on the album, “Curtains” is the moment of sunshine as you burst through the waves and see the shore. Written from the point of view of his friend who deals with mental illness. The lows of it are offset by the high and vibrant chorus “Can you pull the curtains?/ Let me see the sunshine.” It’s stepping out of that darkness and into the light and serves, near the end of the track, as a reminder that it can and does get better.
Sheeran explores his beautiful falsetto in “Borderline” with its orchestral strings and harmonies. In keeping with the exploration of grief, “Borderline” explores how it seems to creep in during everyday moments. “One foot in, on out/ I’m stuck on the borderline” he sings about the grief that seems to keep pulling him back in and infecting moments of every day. It’s a haunting song that shines a light on Sheeran’s vocal range and songwriting prowess.
Another personal favorite on the album, the visuals evoked in this one speak to the moments of anger that can peak through in relationships. “We’ll build a fire and torch our old lives/ And hope the spark survives/ Use words as kindling/ Light up the sky” sings Sheeran. This is one track where Dessner’s production influence can be felt throughout the song and showcases how well the duo work together.
“Vega” feels very much like Sheeran’s homage to the terror he felt after his wife’s diagnosis and the ways in which they dealt with this as a family. Vega is a star in the Lyra constellation that is 2.1 times the size of our sun. Not only is this likely a nod to his eldest daughter, named Lyra, but also a reference to his own stardom where he’s expected to burn bright and always shine. “We were made to be stars/ But it burns like hell to be Vega.” That message is interspersed with the gut-wrenching lines of desperately keeping a positive attitude “Pain comes at a cost, but we’ve got this,” “She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine.”
“Sycamore” is another track where Sheeran plays with juxtaposing mental images. Describing first the joy of a playing with his daughter until the sunshine with his wife, then the terror of the waiting room at the doctor’s office. From “Sycamore bringing shade from beating sun” to “Right now, in the waiting room, emotions running wild/ Worried ’bout my lover, and I’m worried ’bout our child” the ongoing storm of their situation is poignantly felt. Another beautifully produced song that only serves to highlight rather than overpower Sheeran’s vocals, “Sycamore” is a must listen.
“No Strings” is as close to a love song as Sheeran comes on this album. Primarily featuring Sheeran and a piano, the simplicity of the song serve to underscore the message of the song. Even with everything they are facing, the gorgeous message of the chorus is his utter belief that their love will prevail no matter what they are going through, “This is no strings/ You are who I love/ And that won’t change when we’re fallin’ apart.” Oh to have a love like Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn.
“The Hills of Aberfeldy”
Choosing what song to close an album with is a tough call for any artist but it’s almost doubly so when that closing song is a ballad. Even so, Sheeran absolutely nails it with “The Hills of Aberfeldy” which harkens back to the same production and sound as his first mathematics album Plus. Written around the same time, this is the only song off the original Subtract album that made the cut as Sheeran always planned to have it close out the album. It sounds like a classic Ed Sheeran song with his expressive vocals and stripped back production. It’s the perfect way to round out Subtract.
Subtract is now streaming everywhere you listen to music.