Album Review: “Subtract” by Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran recently released his fifth album Subtract” (or just “-“).

[Read my reviews for his prior albums “Divide” and “Equals“]

I’m a huge fan of Ed; he is one of my all-time favorite artists. I discovered him at the start of my freshmen year in college in 2012, when Taylor Swift first worked with him which really put his name out there. He had just put out his first record, “Plus” (or just “+”).

Ed Sheeran is best known for his indie sound, occasionally dipping into pop and hiphop to release a few bangers, but also leaning into acoustics and giving us plenty of slow jams. His lyrics tend to be either absolutely melancholy or hopelessly romantic.

His first album was much more indie, completely relying on a soft and acoustic sound. It wasn’t until his second, after his rise to fame, when he gave us some pop and dance beats. But with “Subtract,” Ed presents a sound that fans were much more familiar with when he first came onto the scene. There are no tracks like “Shivers” from Equals, or “Shape of You” from Divide, or “Sing” from Multiply.

“Subtract” is very much about grief. And that’s everything that I’d expect from such a title. Ed confessed that through the making of this record, he experienced the death of a longtime best friend and his wife’s cancer diagnosis while she was pregnant with their second child. Also, he’s been hit with multiple lawsuits claiming his songs were plagiarized, including a court case that forced him to miss his grandma’s funeral because he was ordered to be in court that day. Since then, he has won the lawsuits, his wife (Cherry) has beat cancer, he has two healthy daughters – but nothing ever cures the grief of losing loved ones.

I also watched his documentary on Disney+ which came out shortly before the release of this album. It was really neat to watch, especially neat to see Cherry and him together. Cherry is someone that Ed knew from his school days, she’s not a celebrity in the limelight, so much of her identity is unknown to the public. I loved seeing them together; she seems very down to earth and I can see how they genuinely care for one another. After years of listening to Ed sing about his previous heartbreaks and failures in romance, it makes me happy to see that he has found his happily ever after.

The documentary also showed that while Ed is very open and vulnerable in his music and lyrics, on the surface he is quite closed off. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. You can just tell that he is thinking a lot more than he says out loud. We see him play “Subtract” live for the very first time in front of a small audience – in which he ends up crying on stage. And you can see that he was very uncomfortable and somewhat ashamed of his tears, but I think it was so beautiful to see how deeply he feels. The honesty of his music is something that is incredibly difficult for him, but it’s also the reason why he is so adored by so many fans.

“Subtract” is a visual album – meaning that each song on the album comes with a music video. All of the videos are fairly simple and underdeveloped. Most of them revolve around the beach and the ocean. It starts off with an intro video, in which we see Ed Sheeran peacefully driving down a beautiful run, until suddenly his car crashes and knocks him deep into the ocean where he drowns. This crash can be compared to suddenly hearing that your friend has passed away, or the doctor has given a fatal diagnosis, and so forth – when something completely throws you off guard. One moment, you were driving forward, the next moment you can’t breathe.

  1. Boat

“I need to feel the elements to remind me there’s beauty when it’s bleak.”

The message of the song is that despite life’s hardships, you can keep moving forward. The video shows Ed standing in the ocean, battling the waves (and probably freezing to death!) I find this song to be so beautiful. It’s such a balance between feeling upset yet keeping hope; between remaining positive without the toxic positivity.

2. Salt Water

“Embrace the deep and feel everything.”

This song has a bit of a gospel sound to it. It vaguely reminds me of something you would sing in church. This video also takes place on the beach in which Ed is standing out on a post and looking into the ocean. This song is about pausing from the busy distractions of the world and taking a moment to feel your emotions, especially the bad ones that we tend to push away. It’s a cleansing and release.

3. Eyes Closed

“Dancing with my eyes closed, cause everywhere I look I still see you.”

This was the first single released that we got to hear before the album came out. It follows the theme of grief and sadness but there’s an upbeat tempo that makes it feel a little more uplifting. And the music video is so cute – we see Ed walking around town, dancing at a bar, being followed by a giant blue plushie with these big, sad eyes. Of course this cute monster resembles grief or more specifically the person that he’s missing. The whole time, while the monster is staring at him and following him everywhere, he avoids eye contact and pretends it’s not there like an elephant in the room. In the end, he finally looks the monster in the eyes, and that’s when it disappears.

4. Life Goes On

“Easy come, hard go, then life goes on.”

This is one of my favorite videos and the symbolism is just perfect. Once again on a beach, he’s sitting on an old wrecked ship. And then he struggles walking forward as this giant anchor is tied to his leg. It’s such a simple video with such simple symbolism, yet it speaks to me so much. It’s the feeling of trying to move forward, but it’s incredibly difficult, because a part of you is attached to the past and it’s weighing you down so heavily. In the end, we see him giving up and laying down with scars on his face.

5. Dusty

“Yesterday was a long night, but I’ve got a feeling that the future is so bright.”

This is possibly my favorite song. This is a happy song. This is about listening to music and just chilling and letting the stress melt away. It’s about living in the moment. The video shows Ed and an actress playing his daughter (she’s still a baby right now, so he’s looking into the future) about seven or eight years old. They’re having a fun day together and baking, it’s so sweet!

6. End Of Youth

“I just don’t know if I can ever just let it go.”

This song is about the moment in life when your youth comes to an end, which can be at any age. Some people never really have a childhood and are forced to grow up before they are even a teenager, for others it could be in their twenties or thirties, when something traumatic happens. It’s that feeling when your innocence is gone and you have lost your “purity.” There is some pain that you will never fully recover from, you will just adjust and learn how to live with it.

7. Colourblind

“Some days we’re red and some days we both think green; But I like the nights when we leave the canvas free”

I think this song is categorizing emotions and life events into different colors. And it’s saying that let’s just forget everything and live in the moment, have no expectations, don’t think too hard about anything. Just paint the night colourblind. (Note the British spelling of “color”!)

8. Curtains

“Can you pull the curtains, Let me see the sunshine? I think I’m done with my hiding place”

I really like the message of this song and I feel like I can really relate. When you go through a period of sadness and depression, you just want to hide from the world and close yourself off from everybody around you. You isolate yourself. But this song is the moment that you feel ready to come back into the world and come out of hiding. I feel like I went through a period of pushing everyone away when I was initially dealing with my mom’s sickness. And maybe it’s important to have that time to be alone – but you don’t want to live that way forever. It definitely reminds me of these past twelve months when I feel like I have been coming back into the world and being more social again.

9. Borderline

“Tears never arrive, these ducts are never dry.”

This black and white video shows Ed sitting out in public with people walking right through him as if he’s not there. This song is about dissociation. This is feeling like you are only halfway present, the other half of you is disconnected from the present, you are borderline. And that quote is chilling and powerful – you don’t start crying because you haven’t stopped crying.

10. Spark

“We’ll build a fire and torch our old lives, And hope the spark survives”

Now again, we have a more uplifting song. While grief follows through as a theme for this record, it bounces between hopefulness and hopelessness, which is very true of grief. I think this one is simply about feeling ready to move forward. But you don’t want to completely burn the past, you also want to take with you the positive memories and the passion you once felt.

11. Vega

“We were made to be stars; But it burns like hell to be Vega”

Vega is the brightest northern star. This song really is the human experience. We are meant to be great and to live great lives, but life is such an intense experience for all of us. Happiness and sadness are all a part of life, and it’s all so consuming and heavy, both the good and the bad. And I believe what he’s saying is that we need to go easy on ourselves; we are all on these very intense journeys.

12. Sycamore

“But in our story, love in, love out; We are glorious”

The lyrics describe the moment of being in the hospital and hearing bad news; this is likely when Ed found out about Cherry’s diagnosis. It’s incredibly sad but it’s also beautiful to see how much love there is. There’s a lot of anxiety about the future but what’s certain is that there is so much love.

13. No Strings

“If we make it through this year, then nothing can break us”

The entire video shows him climbing up a rope ladder. At the end, he falls back down into the sand. It’s about fighting for love, and the love is unconditional, there are “no strings” as in no conditions or expectations. Life will throw you many curveballs and make you question your love for somebody, but true love is unconditional and despite mistakes, failures, losses, sickness and disease, you still fight for them. Life is going to keep testing that love but you have to fight and keep trying.

14. The Hills of Aberfeldy

“Darling we could fall in love, neath the hills of Aberfeldy”

This reminds me of a slowed-down version of “Nancy Mulligan” where it has that old English and Irish sound, but it’s much softer and stripped. The violins are so pretty. It’s a sweet love song, about missing someone and wanting to tell them that you love them, when they may not know.


15. Wildflowers – Calming and cute song about growing into something beautiful. One of my fav’s!

16. Stoned – Feeling like everyone around you has moved on and is achieving so much in their lives, while you are falling behind.

17. Toughest – A beautiful tribute to his wife fighting cancer and reminding her that she is strong.

18. Moving – I love the hard acoustic in this one. It’s about moving on from someone you were once obsessed with but they took you for granted.

“Subtract” absolutely does not disappoint. It’s certainly sadder than prior albums, also far more acoustic like his first one. Sometimes songs can be so sad to the point that it’s just painful to listen, but this is not the case for “Subtract.” Even in his most upsetting lyrics, I still feel a sense of peace and hope. I would like for him to continue making more pop/dance music in the future, but this album is perfect the way it is, and I would like for him to keep up with his acoustic, slow, stripped down sound as well!

Listen/watch “Subtract” HERE! Also, go watch his doc “The Sum Of It All” on Disney+!


6 thoughts on “Album Review: “Subtract” by Ed Sheeran

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