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What Ed Sheeran’s new album means for pop

‘Subtract’ sees the singer-songwriter depart from the polished sound of his—and music’s—recent past. Will others depart with him?
May 10, 2023

Sound, as much as hemlines or holiday destinations, perfumes or paint colours, enjoys phases of fashion and fad. For the past few years, pop has carried a determined polish—the sonic equivalent, perhaps, of the era of filters and fillers. 

If you were to choose an artist who illustrated this trend, you might plump for Ed Sheeran. Sheeran’s sound is attractive yet faintly blank-faced, his albums an easily scrollable amalgamation of genres, suitable for an array of emotions, occasions or generations. As such, his music has grown inescapable in the 12 years since his debut. His songs play in shops and in bars and on radio stations; he soundtracks our films, our television shows, our online worlds; so that even if you are unaware of Sheeran’s music, you will have absorbed it osmotically. I have come to think of his constant musical presence as a kind of audio surveillance—as if he is tracking our every move through benign choruses about bad habits and good bodies.

Today, Sheeran is a pop behemoth. He has notched up countless awards, record-breaking chart positions and streaming figures. His 2019 tour was the highest-grossing of all time until Elton John embarked on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road jaunt. He sang at the Platinum Jubilee Concert and the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, he headlined Glastonbury and, just this spring, has won a plagiarism case—another marker, you might argue, for the scale of his success.

In early May, Sheeran released his fifth album, Subtract. It is a sonic departure for the singer, that sheened pop sound giving way to something more rough-hewn and raw—acoustic guitar, distortion, songs that fray at their edges.

While its first single, “Eyes Closed”, still wielded a strong pop hook, lyrically it addressed a profoundly personal subject matter—the death of his close friend, the music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards. The album’s second release was a muted, Damien Rice-esque ballad named “Boat”, which told of a kind of desperate resilience. Other tracks reckon with the “fear, depression and anxiety” that, Sheeran has said, came from the new levelling of fatherhood and the terror that arose when his wife, then pregnant with their second child, was diagnosed with a tumour that could not be operated on until after she gave birth. They are songs that set aside the jovial, generic tones of earlier work and draw instead upon the specificities of loss.

Subtract was produced by Aaron Dessner, primarily known as one-fifth of US indie rock group The National, but increasingly feted for his production work, which has encompassed two lockdown records made with Sheeran’s close friend Taylor Swift. Dessner also stripped back Swift’s usual pop buoyancy in favour of acoustic sound and low-lying rhythms. It felt radical then, and somehow right for the quietened days of lockdown, as if pop music itself was taking time to recalibrate.

When an artist pares back their sound like this, it acts as shorthand for a new expression of honesty. For Swift, it cleared the ground for new growth; for other artists, it has been a way to communicate the pain of a romantic breakup or personal grief, a confrontation of demons or simply an indication that one has matured as an artist.

It’s a strange concept—as if synthetic pop instrumentation and vibrant production methods acted, hitherto, as an emotional buffer, as if perhaps even electricity itself obscured some essential truth. Certainly, when MTV launched its Unplugged series in 1989, it granted audiences a new perspective on artists such as Eric Clapton, Nirvana and Jay-Z; gone was the bombast, instead these were performances of subtlety and nuance.

Was John Bratby’s painting of a kitchen sink any more real than the art it succeeded? Was Henry David Thoreau living any more deliberately at Walden Pond than if he’d stayed in town? Was Clapton’s acoustic version of “Layla” any more sincere than the Derek and the Dominoes original?

What’s interesting in the case of Sheeran is the tilt this might give to streaming algorithms. When one of the most popular artists in the world performs a sonic volte face, will it unleash a wave of acoustic recommendations? Will it herald a new generation of singer-songwriters? Will the sound of the great pop shine finally fade?