Album Review: Ed Sheeran '-' (Subtract)

5 May 2023 | 11:51 am | David James Young

Truly, there is a version of - (Subtract) that exists in an alternate timeline somewhere that serves as Sheeran's best start-to-finish studio album.

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It's long been said that it's lonely at the top, but it's not often touched upon how precarious it is as well. Ed Sheeran recently completed a blockbuster Australian stadium tour – including two MCG shows attended by over 200,000 people. That's beyond megastardom: That's the kind of prestige only a modern dynasty can bestow upon you. Simultaneously, however, Sheeran has found himself in the courtroom yet again over perceived similarities between one of his hits (this time, Thinking Out Loud) and another songwriter's work (Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On). Sheeran found it so frustrating he openly considered quitting music entirely if the jury didn't rule in his favour. Spoiler alert: They just did. Still, it's a scarce rarity to find yourself ricocheting between such searing highs and crushing lows, all within public spectacle – leaving the release of his fifth studio album, - (Subtract), as somewhat of an afterthought.

The question, then, is whether it deserves to be treated as such. After all, despite all his albums going multi-platinum, it's no secret that the gold in Sheeran's hills have come almost exclusively from his singles. Five songs from 2017's ÷ (Divide) have accumulated over a billion streams, while the rest of the record averages between 200 to 300 million per track. That's still a lot, obviously, but everybody knows the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. The difference now, of course, is that Sheeran has enlisted the help of pop's most surprising new secret weapon: Aaron Dessner, the guitarist from The National that turned Taylor Swift's lockdown into a creative purge that spawned two of her best albums back-to-back. If you're looking to make a capital-A album, best trust the guy who made both Boxer and High Violet.

This intriguing prospect begins on a hugely promising note, with the sparse and emotive second single, Boat making its presence felt on pure resonance alone. Long gone is the electronic bombast of Bad Habits or Shape of You – in its place, Sheeran's voice and guitar are accompanied only by a creaking string arrangement and the warm shroud of close vocal harmony. It honestly doesn't feel too early to call this one of the best songs of Sheeran's career – high praise, but also bringing lofty expectations with it for the remainder of the LP.

Perhaps the biggest fault with - (Subtract) overall is Sheeran's self-sabotaging inability to get out of his own way. There are multiple points across the album's 50-minute runtime where he attempts to have his cake and eat it too – going for the heartstrings but relying too much on bad habits (pardon the pun) he's picked up in his billion-stream era. Sheeran can't fully allow himself to break free of the pop shackles, resulting in clumsy mutants like album lowlight (and, inexplicably, lead single) Eyes Closed. Not for nothing, but it's worth noting this is the only song Dessner didn't solely produce, instead bringing in the team of Fred again.., Max Martin and Shellback. No disrespect to any of them, but it would've been nice if they'd read the room a little bit. There are certainly points where Sheeran and Dessner have their creative visions tessellate in an impressive manner. The piano-driven Borderline offers tender falsetto and a swell of violins to guide it along, while Vega recaptures the bright-eyed busker we first met at the start of the 2010s. The album's closing number, The Fields of Aberfeldy, sees him collaborate with Foy Vance to create a Celtic-flavoured romantic ballad that offers utmost sentimentality without ever boiling over into greeting-card levels of treacle the way Thinking Out Loud and Perfect did in the past. Truly, there is a version of - (Subtract) that exists in an alternate timeline somewhere that serves as Sheeran's best start-to-finish studio album.

Alas, it's not this one. Realistically, there's only so much Dessner can do at certain points on the record that can guide Sheeran into the scenic route rather than that irresistible gooey centre he seems to love so much. Dusty fizzles out almost instantly, its annoying electric guitar chirps and keyboard-demo drum machines somehow adding even less than Sheeran's sleepy platitudes, while Curtains misses the mark by overegging its arrangement – it's hard to buy a song about introspective introversion that's punctured by a hammering snare fill 30 seconds in. There are multiple points across the album where it genuinely feels like the label has intervened and told the pair to add more onto a song so it can get played on radio – as if that's something Sheeran needs at this point in his career. Sure, a Sheeran album with no quote-unquote “hits” on it may seem a terrifying prospect to boardrooms across the world, but from a creative standpoint, it could have been exactly what the doctor ordered.

In spite of some bright spots and even some career highlights across the album, Sheeran is clearly too caught up in stadium-filling maximalism to create his own folklore. It seemed like an opportune time, given he's at a point in his career where he basically has nothing to prove – and yet, the album's complex-inducing inconsistencies hold back its greatness to settle for something that's merely good. Oh well, maybe next time.

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