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Ed Sheeran - - (Album Review)

Wednesday, 10 May 2023 Written by Jack Terry

Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Ed Sheeran has been at the top of the pop game for more than a decade now, becoming one of the world's best selling artists while executing genre-hopping collaborations with everyone from Stormzy to Cradle Of Filth. His fifth album '-', though, is his most stripped back yet, arriving influenced by depression, loss and loneliness.

To help him nail the raw nerve of the subject matter, Sheeran has teamed up with The National’s Aaron Dessner, who also recently took on production and co-writing duties with Taylor Swift on her 'Folklore' and 'Evermore' albums. A winning combination on paper, then.

Lead single and album opener Boat uses the tried-and-tested motif of water to symbolise Sheeran's struggles. It is a poignant, defiant song that finds him admitting that although he's holding it together, he may never get over the things that hurt him.

"They say that all scars will heal / But I know / Maybe I won't / But the waves won't break my boat," he sings in an obviously real refrain that is underpinned by sparse guitar chords. 

This is an album punctuated by issues that could break anybody: the sudden loss of close friend Jamal Edwards, his partner’s cancer diagnosis while six months pregnant, and the strain of relentless touring. One of its biggest strengths is how Sheeran invites much-needed discussion of male mental health.

End Of Youth, in particular, adeptly opens this dialogue. It’s a self-referential lament ("tell the world how to process but don't take my own advice") that dials up how lonely life can feel despite the brightness of the lights around your name. "When I'm down, I never see you / when I'm up, you all appear," he spits in one of the album's most acerbic lines.

'-' is not without its issues though. The watery theme continually laps at its feet, becoming lazy before long. Elsewhere, overwrought clichés on Eyes Closed ("dealing with the cards life dealt") and No Strings ("we tore the walls down to build them up") crush the illusion of this being a deeply personal affair. Sheeran has always written songs for people to claim as theirs, but it can make for hollow music.

All told, '-' is Sheeran's most vulnerable and acoustic album to date and a solid enough way to cap one of British music's most accomplished tales as Sheeran ends his series of mathematical records with a raw reminder of his greatest assets. But, more importantly, he suggests to us that even the world's biggest stars are still only human. 


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