Subtract by Ed Sheeran: Review

On 5 May, the British singer- songwriter released his latest album, - (Subtract).

Subtract by Ed Sheeran: Review

Ed Sheeran announced the release of his latest album, - (Subtract), in March, through a very personal post on social media. “For the first time, I’m not trying to craft an album people will like, I’m merely putting something out that’s honest and true to where I am in my adult life”, the singer and songwriter wrote on his Instagram account. 

The album, which stands as a visual album, was co-written and produced by Aaron Dessner, who had recently collaborated on the production of Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore. The music, prominently acoustic, calls back to the tones of ÷ (Divide), Sheeran’s 2017 album. With very personal and subjective lyrics, Subtract was preceded by two leading singles: Boat and Eyes Closed,  which hit the top of UK charts.

When Sheeran announced the release of Subtract, he opened up about his emotional state at a point in his life where he found himself surrounded by tragic loss, terrible news about his wife Cherry Seaborn, and legal issues concerning copyright infringement allegations. This troubled atmosphere surrounding him is palpable in songs like Boat and Life Goes On. Throughout the entire album, the visual work put into the videos that accompanies every track turns into a very effective vehicle to convey the general message of the lyrics – from the solitude and despair of Salt Water to the sweetness and tenderness of Dusty. 

The aesthetic of the album revolves around the sea. Every video begins with a few seconds-long shots of the deep of the sea, where we see a sunken car (the same one that appears in Salt Water) with the singer holding his breath inside. Throughout the album, the sea becomes an element that represents being held back, sort of trapped.

For this review, I will breakdown the two singles released prior to the album. 


Released on 21 April, Boat is one of the songs that Ed Sheeran wrote alongside Aaron Dessner. Keeping in mind that Subtract is a visual album, the music video for this song becomes very relevant to understanding its message. Directed by Mia Barnes, the video shows Sheeran standing on a seashore, just where the waves break. The lyrics are perfectly paralleled to what we see: as Sheeran sings the chorus lines “but the waves won’t break my boat”, we see the singer opposing resistance against the waves crashing into him, and we never see him falling or giving in. As for the music, the lyrics serve, as the singer stated, as a metaphor for depression and battling against feeling very low; and the music works perfectly for conveying this message. With a soft guitar accompaniment on the verses that builds up very progressively adding strings, piano lines, and a very subtle but effective chorus to the main vocal part, the music creates a very intimate and hopeful atmosphere. 

Eyes Closed 

On 24 March, Ed Sheeran released Eyes Closed, the lead single from - (Subtract). Eyes Closed is a track that contrasts with its sibling single Boat because of its upbeat and purely pop instrumentation. While Boat has a rather warm sound, Eyes Closed is significantly more lighthearted. Despite the radio-like character of its music, the lyrics reflect on Sheeran’s feelings after the passing of one of his closest friends, musician Jamal Edwards. The video, directed by Mia Barnes, follows the singer as he drinks at a bar, dances surrounded by people, or finds himself completely alone. Most of the time, he is followed by a blue character – seemingly a monster – that he appears to try and avoid looking at. 

The line "dancing with my eyes closed" serves, according to the singer, as a metaphor for how music can help overcome tough moments. Again, in an effective way of reflecting the lyrics “so I’ll keep dancing with my eyes closed / ‘coz everywhere I look I still see you”, the video shows Sheeran closing his eyes or simply looking away in every scene the blue character appears. It is only towards the end of the video, where he finally faces this character, and it disappears. Musically speaking, this track has a distinctively pop profile, with a synthesizer initial melody that shapes the entire song, and a bass drop to mark the beginning of the chorus.

All in all, this album shows how much Ed Sheeran has grown as a composer and songwriter, inclining for subjective lyrics that reflect on his particular situation at one point in his life, conveying his message through a well-elaborated music production.

Header Image Credit: "Ed Sheeran" by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity Photographer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Candelaria Gómez

Candelaria Gómez Contributor

Hey! I'm a violinist and music student based in Argentina. I love art in all its expressions -and I love to write about it.
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