Ed Sheeran has tapped into the desperation, destruction, depression, drugs and even death which suddenly surrounded his life in recent years in his latest musical offering, Subtract.
It’s a stark reminder of the raw reality which has confronted the superstar since his more upbeat release, 2021’s Equals.
That album, while only a couple of years old, boasts tracks such as “Shivers”, which was so upbeat and unique, not everyone listening when it came on the radio would realise it was actually an ‘Ed Sheeran song’. There were hoards of people singing along, shaking their shoulders, without fully clocking who was behind the goosebumps and good times.
Subtract has more songs which can perhaps be identified as quintessentially and unquestionably Sheeran, but it’s a much darker and deeper side to one of the most prolific and practised songwriters of our time.
“Eyes Closed”, the third track on the new album, does actually open with a shoulder-popping beat which could get your head nodding and bopping, or even your whole body dancing around your lounge room with your eyes closed, but beyond the beat, the lyrics paint a picture of the difficulty, desperation and death which has enveloped so many people over the past few years.
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Despite covering such a heavy topic, this mix of danceability with raw emotion might just be the release people need in 2023 as they shut their eyes and allow Sheeran to rip the emotional band-aid off and confront the changes and heaviness which others less skilled than the singer-songwriter may be unable to express.
Sheeran’s craft at constructing an album, rather than just knocking some solid songs together in any old order, is on full display when “Eyes Closed” – about being unable (or unwilling) to come to terms with life’s harsher realities – transitions into the reality check that we all face eventually: a track titled “Life Goes On”.
The performer, who could be riding high after his record-breaking shows across Australia, actually explained just how much the trajectory of Subtract changed as his own circumstances did.
“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. 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,” he explained.
“Writing songs is my therapy. It helps me make sense of my feelings. I wrote without thought of what the songs would be, I just wrote whatever tumbled out. And in just over a week, I replaced a decade’s worth of work with my deepest darkest thoughts.”
The changes in his life, he said, simply could not be ignored and nor could he continue an honest musical and creative legacy without confronting what had happened.
“Within the space of a month, my pregnant wife got told she had a tumour, with no route to treatment until after the birth. My best friend Jamal, a brother to me, died suddenly and I found myself standing in court defending my integrity and career as a songwriter. I was spiralling through fear, depression and anxiety. I felt like I was drowning, head below the surface, looking up but not being able to break through for air,” he said.
“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. This album is purely that. It’s opening the trapdoor into my soul. 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. This is last February’s diary entry and my way of making sense of it. This is Subtract.”
It may be a slightly different Sheeran than we’ve come to know, but the album completes the equation of his recent musical legacy, and gives fans both new and old an outlet to confront all that’s happened and start thinking about what’s next.
Ed Sheeran’s Subtract is out now.
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