On ‘Subtract,’ Ed Sheeran Seeks Catharsis by Diving Into His Own Depression

Ed Sheeran has managed to consistently top charts ever since “Plus.” That work began an ambitious four-part series that is now coming to a closure, with the release of its final installment, “Subtract,” produced and co-written by the National’s Aaron Dessner. Although Sheeran had planned the rollout of the whole series in advance, he allowed his conceptions of each subsequent album to evolve. As it turns out, the “Subtract” album arrives after a period of personal loss and depression. Jamal Edwards, the founder of SBTV, and Sheeran’s closest friend, died at the age of 31, then Sheeran’s pregnant wife was diagnosed with a tumor. Sheeran has admitted that his latest album was primarily therapeutic and that its songs weren’t written to please fans. Yet, when left to his own devices, Sheeran gravitates toward what he has mastered over the course of his career — crafting hit songs.  

The opening number, “Boat,” encapsulates the album, in terms of both subject matter and style. We find Sheeran stripped-down, raw and vulnerable, with just his voice and acoustic guitar. He sings, ”I need to feel elements to remind me / There’s beauty when it’s bleak.” This plays out in numerous retreats into nature over the course of the album. In the chorus, Sheeran runs through platitudes like “The more that I love, the less that I feel,” and the predictability with which his melody rises and falls suggests a self-awareness, regarding the clichéd content. He continues, “They say that all scars will heal, but I know,” and waits for a bar before adding, “Maybe I won’t.” Rather than wallow in despair, however, he fixates on a mantra: “But the waves won’t break my boat.” Orchestration enters gradually over the course of the song, like a realization of the conviction in Sheeran’s refrain.

Unsurprisingly, there is the skeletal structure of a conventional pop song underneath even the unpolished, intimate opener. In every other track, there is full anatomy, just without any excessive adornments. “Salt Water” is a piano ballad that inverts the imagery of “Boat.” Sheeran begins, “There’s still so far to go and I can’t feel my toes” as he wades with caution. Upon the chorus, he goads the increasing depths, “Come and kiss me, salt water,” marveling, “I’m free in salt water / Embrace the deep and leave everything.” The sea appears again in “Life Goes On,” a song that belies its title, as Sheeran recounts, “The waves came tumbling down / As you float away.” In the chorus, he stops just short of a full scream, wailing, “Tell me how, how my life goes on with you gone?”

There is a place for upbeat numbers on Sheeran’s most tortured album. In “Eyes Closed,” Sheeran takes a different tone, still vulnerable but markedly less anguished. A scatterplot of synth bass and kickdrums provides the rhythmic framework for a song that might have descended onto the dance floor if Sheeran weren’t grieving. In the refrain, we find him “Just dancin’ with my eyes closed / ‘Cause everywhere I look, I still see you.” It’s a creative and appropriate channeling of a distressing subject into dancey fare, save for gratuitous post-chorus tomfoolery,  where he repeats “Eye-eye-eye-eyes closed.” An album called “Subtract” ought to demonstrate better sense about when less is more. 

“Dusty” is a mellow outlier, the sole song throughout which Sheeran maintains a cool composure, as the responsibilities of fatherhood demand. Sheeran has explained that his daughter likes to listen to records in the mornings and has taken a liking to Dusty Springfield. “All of the pressure washed away in the low tide / But we gotta wait till our clothes are bone dry,” he sings, “So I’ll drop the needle on Dusty.” Meanwhile, the superficial veneer of relative stoicism betrays a wounded and volatile spirit on  “End of Youth.” Sheeran rattles off routines with a matter-of-fact manner, but erupts into a fraught chorus, crying out, “Is this the ending of our youth when pain starts takin’ over?” 

As a polymath of pop songcraft, Sheeran is no stranger to beaming, inspirational choruses. This album’s subject matter might not readily lend itself to revelry, but it does in the context of resolution, and recovery. “Curtains” is among the catchiest tracks, an upbeat number in which Sheeran approaches something akin to melodic rap before he breaks into a cathartic chorus. “Can you pull the curtains?” he exclaims, “Let me see the sunshine,” repeating the latter line with revelatory relish. This ebullience is tempered in “Borderline,” in which Sheeran admits, “Right now, I feel I’m runnin’ from the light… One foot in, one out, I’m stuck on the borderline.” Sheeran reliably delivers an infectious chorus, but in an insufferable falsetto. As it turns out, the tension between the fetching melody and unbecoming timbre effectively captures the frustration of being “stuck on the borderline.”

“Sparks” is an uplifting number, in which Sheeran recognizes, “We’ve been lost for a long time,” but grandly declares, “We’ll build a fire and torch our old lives / And hope the spark survives.” This time, Sheeran makes only a modest dip into falsetto that doesn’t threaten the resonance of an instantaneous chorus. Again, Sheeran accounts for the bombast of such idealism with a qualifying complementary track. In “Vega” he offers further encouragement — “Fighting the tide, but the waves, they will part / Light up the night, we were made to be stars.” Here, however, he makes sure to acknowledge the required struggle. The climactic line is an admission, “But it burns like hell to be Vega.”

The final few songs focus on resilience in the context of a romantic relationship. On “Sycamore,” Sheeran recalls being “in the waiting room, emotions runnin’ wild / Worried ’bout my lover and I’m worried ’bout our child.” Now, however, he drowns out any rumblings of fear with the refrain that he incessantly belts”: Well, in our story, love in, love out / And we are glorious.” One unabashedly maudlin singsong comes after another. “No Strings,” Sheeran insists, “This is no strings, you are who I love / And that won’t change when we’re fallin’ apart.” The predictability of the hackneyed, sappy balladry considerably cheapens the chivalry on display. Luckily, Sheeran breaks free of formulaic constraints on the finale. On “Hills of Aberfeldy,” he gravitates to Scottish folk traditions, singing, “As you lay beside me, hold me close.” He continues, “For all that I know / You could be holding somebody else as close,” but promises, “When I’m home, I’ll hold you like I’m supposed to.” The climactic declaration, “Darling, we could fall in lovе ‘neath the hills of Aberfеldy” prompts a celebratory bout of fiddling.  

Ed Sheeran’s latest set of songs are striking for their sincerity. Sheeran’s uninhibited genre-hopping and unfathomable degree of success over the years have led many to dismiss him as rootless or without a substantive core. This album deflates any such charges. Its songs are not only unpolished, free of any gloss or studio trickery, but also relatively uncontrived. None of the tunes are considerably stylized or written to conform to any particular genre. Any stylistic signifiers are mere hints rather than defining elements or calculated choices. Instead, Sheeran has channeled the worst of his recent life experiences into his lyrics. If they all sound like singles, it’s because they are Ed Sheeran songs. 

Subtract” releases May 5 on Apple Music.