Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Ed Sheeran confessed that he no longer saw the need for music critics in the age of streaming. However, his most recent album, – (Subtract), suggests otherwise – its slow, restrained, tasteful ‘adult’ sound reading as a deliberate attempt to win over critics. After all, who else does Sheeran have to win over, having already won the hearts of the masses with inescapable hits like “Shape of You” and “Perfect.”
With the help of Aaron Dessner – of The National and Folklore fame/acclaim – Sheeran scales back his sound on Subtract; an album devoid of obvious big hits, giant hooks, and, thankfully, the clunky genre-fusions of his last few LPs. The closest thing to a chart-topper here is “Eyes Closed,” which for that very reason ends up marking Subtract’s lowest point. Conceived as a tribute to his late friend Jamal Edwards, its earnest meditations on death get lost in a distastefully peppy soundscape and mindless repetitions of “Eye-eye-eye-eyes // Eye-eye-eye-eyes closed.”
The acoustic sonic palette of Subtract will undoubtedly attract comparisons to Sheeran’s debut LP + (Plus), but at its best, Subtract is a far more likable and timeless record. Opener “Boat” demonstrates that while Sheeran may never be the most innovative-sounding musician, his best lyrics are evocative enough to hold their own with very little backing instrumentation. It’s a tender guitar ballad of resilience, mourning, and realization – Sheeran’s sincerity largely makes up for the clichéd weather imagery.
But Sheeran’s attempts to replicate the success of “Boat” across the remainder of the LP provide diminishing returns. The following “Salt Water” swaps the guitar for piano but otherwise follows the “Boat” formula religiously. The song has all the ingredients of a tear-jerker, but its predictability leaves listeners feeling unmistakably cold. Elsewhere, when Sheeran tries rapping on “End of Youth,” or extends an unspectacular metaphor across three-and-a-half-minutes on “Colourblind,” Subtract’s shortcomings become particularly, painfully apparent.
While Aaron Dessner took Taylor Swift’s songwriting to new evocative heights on Folklore and Evermore, his influence is notably more muted on Subtract. Despite the marketing of Subtract as a back-to-basics, stripped-down album, it sounds polished and labored – to paraphrase the late Leonard Cohen, there are no cracks through which the light can shine. It’s for this reason that Subtract often feels hollow even when Sheeran pens his most vulnerable lines.
Sheeran clearly is an artist who always has his eye on the public’s response to his music – it’s probably for this reason that he’s never made the black metal or country album he’s previously expressed interest in creating. Subtract alternates between heavy-handed attempts at pleasing a mass audience (“Eyes Closed”) and winning over critics (most other tracks), but its peaks arrive when Sheeran no longer caters to the outside world – no longer tries to create grand, sweeping statements but focuses on the evocative intimacies that attracted people to his music in the first place. For this reason, the mid-tempo “Dusty” proves a highlight – which revolves around Sheeran putting on a treasured Dusty Springfield vinyl for his daughter for the first time – as does “Sycamore” – an evocative contrast of waiting room hell contrasted with moments of bliss as Sheeran’s wife pushes their daughter on a swing underneath a sycamore tree. These small moments may not attract the mass audience Sheeran is used to, but they’ll surely solidify his legacy in a way much of his recent output has failed to.
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