The Minus Touch: Ed Sheeran’s Subtract Reviewed

Who'd want to kill off the ancient art of the album review? Ed would! Despite this JR Moores buckles on the kneepads and braces himself to deliver the final verdict on this fine (yes, fine) album...

Ed Sheeran doesn’t read reviews so it doesn’t matter whether the first line calls him a malignant turnip. Fans who are faithful to his bidding don’t bother with them either so they won’t mind what comes next. I have never felt so free. (Or do I mean cheap?)

"Our Ed" recently informed Rolling Stone (est. 1967) that music criticism is obsolete. His thoughts were published a few weeks before the release of his fifth album. This gave reviewers whose validity he had questioned plenty of time to over-sharpen their pencils. His comments may even have roused to review it those who would otherwise have ignored the drippy air-filler and stuck to writing about noise-rock bands with saxophones and names like Claw Pile.

As a caveat, then, every word that follows goes against my better judgement. I used to quite like the bootcut of Sheeran’s denimed jib. I’d defend him from accusations of being blander than a pailful of unseasoned cress. (In private, at least. I’m not Zane Lowe.) You’ve got to have cajónes the size of Roald Dahl’s Fleshlumpeater to fill Glasgow Arena with no backing band. What’s more, anyone who’s ever posted an image of Ed Sheeran beside that of the ageing Mick Hucknall, after noticing the two soulful singers share the same hair colour, is an arse-stool of the turdiest calibre.

Sheeran is a bit of a hypocrite however, in that he has rejected album reviews only after making the grade as Mr Billy Big Bollocks. Those who think he’s made some astute observation on how the promotional game has changed since Spotify and Instagram took off ought to see the thousands of requests for coverage that cascade into writers’ and editors’ inboxes on a daily basis, sent from major labels, indie imprints and DIY ramshacklers alike. Ed is not the only popstar to have gone from fawningly thanking reviewers for exposure in the earlier stages of their career to writing them off once they no longer need them, without a moment’s thought for those debutantes who might actually still do. They are effectively pulling the ladder up behind them as if wishing to emulate Conservative Party policy on every social issue.

If reviews are a mere relic from the pre-streaming era, then why do superstars still seem so threatened by them? They’re like the hypersensitive billionaires in the low-stakes world of HBO’s Succession. Lana Del Rey took umbrage at Ann Powers, thus encouraging a Twitter pile-on. Responding to a fairly balanced 6.5 Pitchfork review, Lizzo punched back (downwards) with a full-caps tweet, since deleted, that insisted "People who ‘review’ albums and don’t make music themselves should be unemployed". Following that logic, Jonathan Meades can’t describe Salt Lake Temple as an "ill-proportioned lump of approximately neo-Gothic illiteracy" or even praise Preston Bus Station until he’s drawn up some blueprints and mixed a few buckets of concrete himself. As for that upstart Grace Dent, she ought to have secured herself a part-time sous-chef gig at Gordon Ramsey’s waving-cat-packed Asian "inspired" eatery before dismissing it as Yo Sushi! for naked emperors.

More recently, Lizzo expressed "sobbing" gratitude to Rolling Stone for a review of 2022’s Special. The piece hyperbolised, in one poorly penned sentence, that "The music on this album is the most unabashedly joyous, sonically diverse, and emotionally profound album put out by a major label since Beyonce’s Lemonade." In this instance, Lizzo didn’t demand to see the writer’s certificate for Grade Eight flute performance.

"I would never read an album review and go, ‘I’m not gonna listen to that now,’" says Sheeran. Seeing as his own accumulated Metacritic scores (those of reviewers as well as "users") have gradually lowered with each subsequent release, there is the implication that gushingly positive reviews merit existence whereas peskier "bad" or even lukewarm reviews should be disregarded entirely. This is only the first stage in their censorial eradication.

So that’s that, then. Everything is as groin-tinglingly wonderful as everything else that came before it, exists concurrently, or will come thereafter. Every Ed Sheeran album, single and Major Lazer remix is as superb as the last. No questions need to be asked or screamed into the abyss. Every review should read like the Argos catalogue’s description of an elegant kettle. Most of them already do. Aspiring music journalists are advised to simply change the nouns in any given monologue from The Fast Show‘s Brilliant Kid.

Granted, this isn’t the most crucial culture war occurring right now. Not while one-hit novelist Lionel Shriver is busy dehumanising any immigrants who haven’t been lucky enough to publish any best-selling pulp fiction for the Mumsnet virtual coffee morning crowd. That said, the issue does have wider implications. Was this the logical endpoint of poptimism all along and the complicit music media has all but goal-hanged itself out of existence?

Will any hacks hit back? In seeking to undermine critics’ very existence and thus curtail freedom of expression, it can tempt some people into testing those limits, often by wading into areas they aren’t entirely comfortable with themselves. Like having to listen to a whole album by Ed Sheeran.

Well, kids. Here’s what the PR blurbers, marketing armies, corporate copywriters, amateur fandoms and manipulative algorithms don’t want you to read about Ed Sheeran’s latest omnipresent ear intruder. Strap yourselves in, guys. Buckle on the kneepads and brace yourselves for one hell of a mind-shafting truth bomb. Here’s what Big Streama doesn’t want you to know. Ed Sheeran’s new album is…


It’s fine.

(or Subtract) is his gentlest and most pained album, which for some will make it his best. Others might find it the dullest since his 2011 debut. As he does elsewhere, Sheeran sounds genuinely moved on the single ‘Eyes Closed’, which began life as a breakup song before it became a tribute to the late Jamal Edwards. It’s a relatively lo-fi number for one that credits three co-writers and four producers. Whoever crowbarred the ear-worming "eye-eye-eyes" into the chorus of this otherwise tasteful piece is earning their royalties as an airplay assurer.

For this album Sheeran recruited The National’s Aaron Dessner as main co-writer. Perhaps he was hoping to untap the same Dadrockers who got onboard, despite themselves, with Taylor Swift’s Dessner-assisted downbeat folk period. Savvy Swifty nailed that style over lockdown, mind, a time when it made a lot of sense. She has since read the room and returned to flashier, uplifting pop now that people have had their fill of festering alone and can dance together again in sweaty spaces. For his own part, Sheeran may have missed the Boaty McFolkface and misjudged his material by lumping on his fans song after song of largely acoustic sorrow with the occasional moment of lilting, subtly orchestrated optimism.

Subtract is an introspective record which dwells on themes of death, depression, companionship and regret, at times sloping into self-pity. Sheeran can be commended for singing directly from the heart about all the recent events that have troubled him. Well, not quite all. It would have been interesting to hear him directly tackle the stresses caused by his successive plagiarism cases. Perhaps he could have cheekily defended himself over a recycled Bee Gees chord progression to really stick the finger up.

Rolling Stone predicts that Sheeran is "in sudden danger of achieving a new brand of musical coolness". There is equal jeopardy that, by ruminating quietly on grief and sadness with little variation for a nearly an hour (plus bonus tracks), this album could alienate those who prefer it when Sheeran genre hops with giddy abandon and serves up the cheerfuller "cheese" of which they can’t get enough and he, understandably, has no shame in mongering. Such listeners might find themselves missing the songs Sheeran said he wrote and then rejected on the grounds of being too positive for this brooding collection.

Towards the end of Subtract, even the most wilting fan of Elliott Smith might be pining for a bouncier Sheeran cut in the tradition of ‘Shape Of You’. The sprightliest he gets, and one of the points he comes closest to rapping, is on ‘Curtains’. With its mixture of organic instruments and electronic influences, it’s a bit like one of those horrible newer Smashing Pumpkins singles. Infinitely better is the Beck-ish ‘Dusty’, about the redemptive power of dropping the needle on In Memphis and the joy in passing this love onto his children.

The important thing is there is nothing on here as cleft-clenchingly horrendous as 2017’s ‘Galway Girl’, the worst song about Ireland since Greg Davies’ ‘Gilligan’s Pony’ from Series 4 of Man Down. But then that is setting the bar lower than Ant-Man’s love plums.

Some people will think Subtract adds value to their late-capitalist lives because they find the "woo-woos" and abrupt ending on ‘End Of Youth’ to be sincere and relatable rather than a tad contrived. Others will not enjoy it on account of the deluge of ballads; with so many water-based metaphors Subtract leaves you feeling soggier than the puddle-soaked feet Sheeran describes at the start of ‘Salt Water’. The playlists of the former would likely be enriched by the recommendations of the record-collecting latter. It’s exactly this kind of haughty attitude that will fuel resentment towards the aesthetes who turn their noses up at "lower" (albeit multimillion-making) forms of art. Come the inevitable populist uprising, anyone who wears glasses will be first against the wall like under the Khmer Rouge. Hang on, though. That means Ed will be targeted too. Get some contact lenses, Sheeran! If life under Michael Gove’s anti-expert junta needs anything, it’ll be songs like ‘Boat’ to sooth us as we shovel our combined excrement out of England’s oxtail-brown rivers on zero-wage contracts, shin-deep in the liquid gulags.

Of course you could listen to Ed Sheeran instead of reading this. You could read this instead of listening to Subtract. You could do both and still be allowed make up your own mind. The more time-efficient among you may wish to do neither and choose a more rewarding activity such as binge-watching BEEF on Netflix. Is that show really an action-packed dramedy concerning the complex plight of the Asian-American diaspora? Or is it an elaborate metaphor for the mutually vampiric nature of the loggerheaded relationship between the famous, pampered artist and lowlier, impotent arts blogger whose shared experiences at different corners of the same greasy industry suffer from an equally dissatisfied sense of spiritual emptiness until each party destroys the other? It’s the first one, obviously.

None of this matters anyway. Ed Sheeran’s pithy quote in Rolling Stone is Francis Fukuyama’s The End Of History for The Sonos Speaker Generation. Ed Sheeran won’t read this. Ed Sheeran’s fans won’t read this. Claw Pile’s meagre following won’t have made it this far. I’ve barely managed it myself. It’s time for us all to move on. The superstars can have their way. The album review is dead. In a few years’ time no one will remember what was lost, let alone care. And why should they?

Ed Sheeran’s Subtract is out today via Atlantic

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