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Ed Sheeran announces final mathematical-themed album ‘Subtract’

'For the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like,' Sheeran said. 'I’m merely putting something out that’s honest and true to where I am in my adult life'

By Tomás Mier

Ed Sheeran press shot, 2023
Ed Sheeran. (Photo: Annie Leibovitz)

Ed Sheeran is ending his era of mathematic-titled albums with the release of upcoming LP, Subtract (stylised as ), he announced in the early hours of Wednesday. And he’s ready to “open the trapdoor into my soul” with the new music on the way.

The British singer revealed in a note to fans that he’ll be releasing Subtract, an Aaron Dessner-produced acoustic album that will dive into his personal grief, hope, and how he’s dealt with “fear, depression, and anxiety” through the last year. The album arrives May 5 via Atlantic.

“I had been working on Subtract for a decade, trying to sculpt the perfect acoustic album, writing and recording hundreds of songs with a clear vision of what I thought it should be,” he wrote in the note. “Then at the start of 2022, a series of events changed my life, my mental health, and ultimately the way I viewed music and art.”

Sheeran explained that early last year, his wife Cherry Seaborn was diagnosed with a tumour “with no route to treatment” until after their baby’s birth early last year and that his best friend Jamal Edwards had died tragically, all within a month. (Edwards, who Sheeran described as a “brother to me,” died in February 2022 of a heart attack after taking cocaine and alcohol, per The Guardian.)

“I found myself standing in court defending my integrity and career as a songwriter. I was spiraling through fear, depression, and anxiety,” he wrote. “I felt like I was drowning, head below the surface, looking up but not being able to break through for air.”

To get through those experiences, Sheeran used songwriting as his “therapy” and to “make sense” of his feelings. “I wrote without thought of what the songs would be, I just wrote whatever tumbled out,” he said. “And in just over a week, I replaced a decade’s worth of work with my deepest darkest thoughts.”

“As an artist, I didn’t feel like I could credibly put a body of work into the world that didn’t accurately represent where I am and how I need to express myself at this point in my life,” he added. “This album is purely that. It’s opening the trapdoor into my soul.”

He ended the note: “For the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like, I’m merely putting something out that’s honest and true to where I am in my adult life.”

The project is being produced by Dessner from the National after the two were introduced by mutual friend Taylor Swift, according to a press release. Over the span of a month, Dessner and Sheeran wrote 30 songs and narrowed it down to the 14 that made it the final release. Among the song titles are “Life Goes On,” “End of Youth,” “Spark,” and “No Strings.”

Subtract will be the final iteration of Sheeran’s math-themed album titles. He released his debut album + in 2011, followed by 2014’s x and 2017’s ÷. He paused the math LPs for a collab record titled No. 6 Collaborations Project in 2019, before dropping 2021’s =.

Unlike his previous math-themed album covers, the art for the LP features a mustard yellow background with what appears to be a gray drawing of a corroding heart in the middle. On the bottom right, a subtraction symbol denotes the record’s title.

The album announcement comes several days after Sheeran sent out Subtract-themed planners to some of his top fans. In the calendar, March 1 — the date the project was announced, and May 5 — the scheduled release date, are highlighted, along with dates like March 24, May 9, and May 12, making fans believe that singles or announcements are scheduled for those dates.

Also written in some of the pages of the planners are seeming lyrics, such as: “The waves won’t break my boat.” On Monday, Sheeran shared a video of a wave taking away one of the “equals” sign lines to leave a subtraction symbol on Twitter. “Getting excited now?” he wrote.

– (Subtract) Tracklist

1. ‘Boat’
2. ‘Salt Water’
3. ‘Eyes Closed’
4. ‘Life Goes On’
5. ‘Dusty’
6. ‘End of Youth’
7. ‘Colourblind’
8. ‘Curtains’
9. ‘Borderline’
10. ‘Spark’
11. ‘Vega’
12. ‘Sycamore’
13. ‘No Strings’
14. ‘The Hills of Aberfeldy’

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