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Ed Sheeran ‘Subtract’ review: personal pain makes for some of the best songs of his career

A traumatic year that saw his wife taken ill and the death of his best friend Jamal Edwards shapes this often bleak album

3.0 rating

By Nick Reilly

Ed Sheeran (Picture: Press)

For a decade, Ed Sheeran had always intended for Subtract — the final album in his mathematics series — to be “the perfect acoustic album, writing and recording hundreds of songs with a clear vision of what I thought it should be”.

But even he, a multi-million-selling pop icon, surely had no idea that such a preconceived idea would transform itself into the bleakest and most soul-baring record of his career to date.

It all stems from 2022, the most challenging year of Sheeran’s life. Last February, his life was rocked when his wife Cherry Seaborn, then six months’ pregnant, was diagnosed with a tumour that needed surgery — which couldn’t happen until after she had given birth. Weeks later, Jamal Edwards — the SBTV founder and entrepreneur who launched Sheeran’s career — died of a cocaine- induced cardiac arrhythmia.

As a result, Subtract has transformed into Sheeran’s therapy record, with the singer cathartically opening up about his experiences during a particularly tough year. Things take a bold start on ‘Boat’, with Aaron Dessner’s subdued and folk-fused production allowing Sheeran to prove his apparent resilience. “The waves won’t break my boat,” he softly croons.

While that image of the sea is stacked with emotional inference, others are literal and all the more powerful for it. ‘End of Youth’ sees him admitting he’s unable to “get a handle on my grief”, while lead single ‘Eyes Closed’ is a raw depiction of his struggle to accept that he’ll never see Edwards again.

Elsewhere, the overarching influence of The National’s Dessner can be felt on ‘Sycamore’ — not a world away from the in-demand producer’s recent work with Taylor Swift. It offers a candid reflection on how his wife’s struggles left him feeling powerless. “Right now in the waiting room, emotions running wild / Worried ’bout my lover and I’m worried ’bout our child”. The candour makes for one of the best songs of Sheeran’s entire career.

But amid these moments of personal candour, there are musical detours that don’t always come off. ‘Dusty’ is among the record’s more meandering moments, while closer ‘The Hills of Aberfeldy’ is a cloying diversion into trad folk. For the most part, however, it is a collection of songs where Sheeran has found catharsis in mining his pain. “It’s been forever, but I’m feeling alright,” he offers on album track ‘Curtains’.

In creating this album, you sense he’s been able to come out the other side.