Ed Sheeran lets his tears flow on ‘-’

(File photo: NYTimes)
“There’s beauty when it’s bleak,” Ed Sheeran reminds himself in “Boat,” the opening song on his new album, “-” (pronounced “Subtract”). Mortality loomed around the British musician in 2022, the year he wrote most of the songs on “-”, and it is reflected in the music: subdued, primarily acoustic and downtempo, and a long way from the big beats and brash productions of its predecessor, “=” (“Equals”) in 2021. Its songs balance between despair and reassurance, barely tilting toward optimism. “If we make it through this year then nothing can break us,” he vows in “No Strings”.اضافة اعلان

In a Disney+ documentary series, “Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All,” which was released just before the new LP, Sheeran says the album reveals his “deepest, darkest thoughts.” He has been openly diaristic before: airing career grudges in “Eraser,” exploring his family lore in “Nancy Mulligan,” greeting a new child in “Welcome to the World.” But his latest songs cope with pain, depression, and mourning, and they struggle to find happy endings.

In “End of Youth,” he sings, “Can’t get a handle on my grief/When every memory turns to tears,” and in “Borderline,” he admits, “Sadness always finds an in/Sneaks its way past infecting everything.” Previewing the album with a 2022 concert at Union Chapel in London that’s shown in the documentary, Sheeran found himself crying onstage.

In “Toughest,” a bonus track, Sheeran sings, “The doctor said it’s cancer and a baby’s on the way.” That’s reportage: Sheeran’s wife, Cherry Seaborn, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her arm while pregnant with their second child, Jupiter. (She got treatment after the child was born.) In February 2022, Sheeran’s close friend Jamal Edwards died at 31; he was a YouTube tastemaker, producer, entrepreneur, and DJ who gave Sheeran pivotal early recognition.

In 2022 and into this year, Sheeran also faced multiple lawsuits over accusations of plagiarism, since he tends to use chord progressions and structures that give his songs pop’s instant familiarity. At times, he has added songwriting credits as resemblances emerged, as he did in “Photograph” (citing “Amazing”, a hit by Matt Cardle, whose collaborators Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard sued in 2016) and “Shape of You” (which echoed TLC’s “No Scrubs”.) “I am just a guy with a guitar who loves writing music for people to enjoy,” he said after prevailing in a case involving Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” last week. “I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake.”

Still, Sheeran also spent much of 2022 and 2023 as a touring superstar, headlining stadiums worldwide with his voice, guitars, keyboard, and loop machine, getting tens of thousands of people singing along. Over the past decade, he has proved himself to be a consummate, driven 21st-century musician: gifted, career-minded, and supremely adaptable yet easily recognizable, writing songs that revel in direct language and big feelings.

Sheeran has made himself the USB port of pop songwriting, connecting with virtually everything. He can reach back to the tunefulness of his Irish forebears, croon in an R&B falsetto, wax folky and introspective, pump up a rock anthem, deliver a perky pop chorus or flaunt the syncopated flow of a rapper. He has written or collaborated on folk-pop, hip-hop, grime, K-pop, R&B, Afrobeats, Latin pop, movie themes, reggaeton, electronic dance music and more — too prolific to be contained.

According to the documentary, Sheeran had a decade-plus master plan. His new album completes a five-album arc of arithmetic symbols, with “-” following “+” (2011), “x” (2014), “÷” (2017) and “=” (2021). Per its title, “-” was intended to be a stripped-down singer-songwriter album, though Sheeran has by no means renounced big pop choruses.

“-” was produced by Aaron Dessner, the keyboardist and guitarist from the National and a co-producer of Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore.” Sheeran built most of the songs on instrumental tracks by Dessner: sparse piano or guitar chords leading to stately choruses, often burnished with somber string arrangements.

They are sturdy songs, even as Sheeran sings about fragile emotions. In the hymnlike “Salt Water”, he contemplates drowning and possibly suicide, with a choir rising behind him to share the line “Embrace the deep and leave everything”; then he shrugs it off, singing, “It was just a dream”. In “Life Goes On,” over a fitfully strummed guitar reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” he begs, “Tell me how/How my life goes on with you gone?” and then wills himself forward: “Easy come, hard go/Then life goes on.”

Obviously, Sheeran does not worry about verbal cliches — though in these songs, the sorrowful tone makes them sound more unguarded than banal.

The album does have a stealth pop tune: “Eyes Closed,” which Sheeran started in 2018 with hitmaker Max Martin and rewrote as a song to mourn Edwards: “Every song reminds me you’re gone.” Acoustic instruments — cello, guitar — carry the staccato arrangement, but the chorus still works up a hefty beat and an “eye-yi-yi-eyes” vocal hook. Even in his deepest, darkest moments, Sheeran invites a pop singalong.

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