What we can take away from “Subtract”

May 12, 2023, 9:19 p.m. | By Katalina Li | 1 year ago

Ed Sheeran’s new acoustic album offers an intimate glimpse into the singer’s life

When you think of Ed Sheeran’s music, what comes to mind? Perhaps the iconic beat of “Shape of You” that all of us know? Or maybe the climactic anti-drop in “Bad Habits”, which took music charts by storm two summers ago? Or perhaps even the soft melody of “Photograph”, released all the way back in 2014? 

In “-” (“Subtract”), released May 5, Sheeran brings something completely new to the table. While his previous albums included a wide variety of soulful ballads and popular dance hits, “Subtract” solely features acoustic songs. “Subtract” is a masterfully written album, with just the right blend of careful curation and raw emotion. 

Ed Sheeran's new album, "Subtract" (image courtesy of @edsheeran on Twitter). Photo courtesy of Katalina Li.

As Sheeran describes in a press release, “Subtract” has shifted over time, reflecting how his own life has done the same. “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," Sheeran said. 

Just as the tides of his life ebb and flow, Sheeran repeatedly references water as a manifestation of his feelings throughout the album. This goes beyond just your typical metaphor for feeling like one’s head is below water — Sheeran truly takes the time to craft the perfect lyrics to convey exactly what he feels. 

Sheeran starts off with “Boat”, an encouraging ballad with a constant message, which is that despite all the hardships he may face, “the waves won’t break [his] boat.” The water metaphor reappears periodically, from the gradually uplifting verses in “Salt Water” (“I’m free in salt water / Embrace the deep end”) to the gut-wrenching lines of “Life Goes On” (“Just like tears in the rain / A constant gray in the clouds / When I hear your name”). 

For Sheeran, songwriting is a form of therapy and an outlet for when hardships come up in his life. His music is an extension of himself, and his water metaphors appear in his press conferences as well: “I felt like I was drowning, head below the surface, looking up but not being able to break through for air.”

Within the album as a whole, “Life Goes On” marks a tonal shift. Up until this point in the album, Sheeran has sung about trudging forward in times of struggle, and putting words to the low points of life. “Life Goes On” is markedly more heartfelt, and clearly comes from a place of love and a deep sense of fear for losing those we love. While we can’t be sure who Sheeran is singing about, it may be a tribute to his wife, Cherry Seaborn, who was diagnosed with cancer in February 2022. This song truly encapsulates Sheeran’s talent — the ability to pour his heart and soul into writing and melodies. “So tell me how / How my life goes on with you gone? / I suppose / I’ll sink like a stone, If you leave me now / Oh, the storms will roll / Easy come, hard go,” Sheeran sings. 

Seaborn’s diagnosis came at the start of what would be a difficult year for Sheeran. On top of the death of his best friend and a plagiarism lawsuit in June 2022, Sheeran turned to music as an outlet for his pain and treated it as a form of therapy. “End of Youth” is perhaps the song on the album that best encapsulates it, as he belts, “It’s been a long year / And we’re not even halfway there.” 

Just as Sheeran laments the events of early 2022, he acknowledges the loss of innocence that came with them. So, where do we go from there? The rest of “Subtract” is filled with songs about understanding that through all the hardships, we must keep going even if it feels impossible at times. There are the feelings of optimistic trepidation (“Borderline”), happy nostalgia (“Spark”), and above all, an openness that Sheeran embraces when singing both to the audience and to his family and loved ones. 

As Sheeran finishes off the album, we’re left with a clear picture of Sheeran’s life over the past few years. “Subtract” completes a collection of numerous albums over the last decade, starting with “+” in 2011 and continuing with “x” (2014), “➗” (2017) and “=” (2021). The earlier albums all featured a variety of song types, with each album containing danceable hits like “Shivers” or “Shape of You” and romantic ballads like “Perfect”. 

As an entirely acoustic album, “Subtract” features neither of these, but by removing a lot of instrumental background, we’re left with just the part that Sheeran shines the most —his lyricism. His words, laid bare before us, take us on a journey through the most intimate and difficult periods of his life. Ultimately, the album leaves us with powerful melodies we can take solace in and meaningful lessons we can take away.

Last updated: May 12, 2023, 9:22 p.m.

Tags: Ed Sheeran acoustic

Katalina Li. Hi there! I'm Katie (she/her). I'm a senior and a co-Editor-in-Chief of SCO! When I'm not writing or editing, I'm usually messing around on my trumpet, drawing Studio Ghibli characters, or making piano covers for my YouTube channel :) More »

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