−, or Subtract, is the fifth and, according to the British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, final installment in his series of albums using mathematical symbols as their titles, which stretches all the way back to 2011’s +. His latest release is appropriately named in the context of his career: When Sheeran initially broke through in the early 2010s, he was hailed for his storytelling-centric songwriting, which was given dramatic heft by his lilting voice and interpretative skill. As his star rose, his music began to take on more baggage—radio-ready touches that helped elevate his chart positions but made his songs feel both inescapable and increasingly hollow.
On Subtract, Sheeran’s lyricism returns to the spotlight, bolstered by finely detailed music that complements his crystalline lyrics and close-confidant delivery. While the lead single, the skeletal meditation on grief “Eyes Closed,” does have co-writing and production credits from top-tier pop architects Fred Again., Max Martin, and Shellback, the bulk of the album is the result of collaborations between Sheeran and Aaron Dessner, the indie rock multi-instrumentalist and member of The National whose work on Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore landed him on pop’s A-list.
In Sheeran’s recent Rolling Stone profile, he talked about how much of Subtract resulted from Dessner sending him music that was only lacking a topline melody and lyrics. “It’s just complete brain-to-page,” Sheeran said of the writing process that was unlocked. The music on Subtract is deliberately arranged, providing solid ground for Sheeran’s meditations on a horrific collection of events—the death of his friend Jamal Edwards, the discovery of a tumor in his then-pregnant wife, a plagiarism lawsuit, and a descent into depression all hit at seemingly the same time.
The only way out for Sheeran was through writing songs, which is apparent by the exposed-nerve feel that recurs throughout. Thoughts tumble out over spectral strings on the verses of “End of Youth,” which reckons with the moment “when pain starts taking over,” while the unceasing ache on “Borderline” is expressed both in the lyrics (“Tears never arrive/ these ducts are dry”) and Sheeran’s use of his upper register’s highest boundaries. There are lighter moments: “Dusty” is a sun-dappled synthpop track in which Sheeran and his loved ones take solace in the music of fellow Brit Dusty Springfield; the driving “Curtains” turns a game of hide and seek into a metaphor for dragging oneself out of life’s muck.
Subtract (and, by extension, Sheeran’s mathematical-symbol era) closes with the new-look Celtic folk song “The Hills of Aberfeldy.” Sheeran wrote it more than ten years ago, when he was first devising his multi-album project. Its stripped-down arrangement and Sheeran’s full-throated vocal draw a bright line between the traditional music of centuries ago and the pop that’s brought him to the world’s biggest stages, while its lyrics possess a flicker of hope for love even as the fear of dashed romantic hope looms. It might be a decade-old song, but it punctuates Subtract in fitting fashion as it brings Sheeran full circle on this chapter of his pop life.