Ed Sheeran- Subtract track by track review

Here are our thoughts on the new album from Ed Sheeran.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 5th May 2023

Fresh off the back of winning his plagiarism case, Ed Sheeran is back with his latest album 'Subtract' and it is set to be one of his most personal to date as it sees him navigate one of the most difficult periods of his life having spoken recently about how the loss of Jamal Edwards and his wife being diagnosed with cancer affected him. 

We thought we'd take a look at his latest offering on a track-by-track basis to see if this was one of his best efforts to date.

 

Boat

Working with Aaron Dessner of The National on this album, who has produced on Taylor Swift's recent records, it has seen Sheeran go back to his folk beginnings on this album. With strums of acoustic guitar greeted by foggy, encompassing textures, wear the singer-songwriter cast doubts over his wounds healing.

 


 

Salt Water

There are a lot of soft touches on the album as if the instrumentals are treating the lyrics with a certain tenderness. Working with Dessner doesn't feel as revolutionary for Sheeran as it did for Swift, as we've seen Sheeran put on this guise before as he strips away the pop sound that has dominated his most recent efforts.

 


 

Eyes Closed

He references the bad cards that he has been dealt recently, dealing with a much darker sensibility than we're used to seeing from him. In spite of everything 'Eyes Closed' sees Sheeran determined to carry on forwards. "I lost more than my friend" he sings, searching for a way to come to terms with what he lost. 

 


 

Life Goes On

It's very clear to see how much Sheeran is hurting here, this feels like the perfect space to air and document those spaces. This is a song that documents the blow of being punched down to your lowest. It's not a radical revolution but it does seem as though scaling back has helped Sheeran reach a new level of authenticity.

 


 

Dusty

This song sees an air of positivity take over, where joy is found through a record player he calls 'Dusty'. Having "I got a feeling that the future is bright" as a lyric is a complete antithesis to the rest of the album so far. 

 


 

End of Youth

We hear of Sheeran's destructive tendencies in the wake of the loss that he had. Time starts to slow down when you're at your lowest, small disappointments feel massive off the back of a downward spiral. Amongst acoustic strums we hear strings rise in the background accompanied by downtrodden piano keys. 

 


 

Colourblind

For all the heaviness of the topics, there haven't been too many memorable lyrics yet. Sheeran is able to easily translate the pain that he feels but there are few lyrics that feel as though they stand out. This track sees the piano play out like stars rising and falling in the night sky. This song comparing feelings to colours perhaps exemplifies Sheeran's inability to craft deeply affecting narratives and metaphors.

 


 

Curtains

With things looking positive, it sees us now looking upwards from that deeper pit that Sheeran was plunged into before. This is one of the most powerful choruses' on the album to date, there's a lot more emphasis in his vocals, almost feeling as if he's just jolted up from being asleep.

 


 

Borderline

The way we have followed this journey has been a snaking trail. Positive and negative spells have been one-upping each other constantly but 'Borderline' exists specifically in the middle, that space between getting better and getting sucked back into darkness again.

 


 

Spark

It is a bit jarring how back and forth the narrative has been on this album. It may represent the back and forth that your mental health can go through in grief but it makes for an inconsistent tone. Here, we lean towards the hopeful again as Sheeran urges for the 'Spark' to come to the fore again. 

 


 

Vega

Sheeran is again listening to vinyl. As part of his recovery technique, he describes trying to fight the tide. It exemplifies the microcosm that his household became after his wife's diagnosis, where, all in it together they dealt with their pain as one. "She'll be fine, she'll be fine" willing on her recovery.

 


 

Sycamore

Worries come to the forefront, Sheeran retreads a lot of the same ground that we've heard before on the album, themes of denial and coming back from the brink. The instrumentals have remained relatively constant too and this is one of the folkiest moments on 'Subtract'. 

 


 

No Strings

A love song that speaks of Sheeran's dedication to his wife which has only gotten stronger during this difficult time. A piano ballad that sees him profess his love even during the strained moments.

 


 

The Hills of Aberfeldy

Named after a small Scottish town, a picturesque are that the songwriter loves, he describes falling in love in the area. The sonic nod to traditional Scottish music is a little bit too on the nose. 

 


 

Overall, Ed Sheeran's new album 'Subtract' is definitely an improvement on his recent albums but it is still bogged down by repetitive themes and instrumentals. It's also an album where Sheeran fails to make an impression as a memorable lyricist, he's able to gracefully transfer his pain and hardship into the record but fails to inspire much imagination. In stripping back his sound he has definitely made a good call, which was helped by the inclusion of Aaron Dessner.

 



 

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