“Writing songs is my therapy,” Ed Sheeran told his fans upon announcing his new album, –. “It helps me make sense of my feelings.” In early 2022, Sheeran required that outlet: although his latest album, =, had produced a new batch of smashes in “Bad Habits” and “Shivers,” he had been taken to court due to a copyright lawsuit over “Shape of You,” his best friend Jamal Edwards had passed away suddenly at the age of 31, and his pregnant wife was diagnosed with a tumor that couldn’t be treated until after the birth.
That all occurred within the span of a month, and Sheeran’s world was upended — so he decided to examine his feelings through his craft. As suggested by muted lead single “Eyes Closed” and a rollout focused squarely on the acoustic nature of the project, – is not your typical Sheeran album, and doesn’t contain the no-brainer radio hits that have colored his full-lengths over the past five years.
Yet if – marks a searing left turn in Sheeran’s recording career, his songwriting has long been working up towards an unfiltered, emotionally intelligent statement like this. A superstar who grew from busking on the street to playing stadiums — with just himself onstage, no less — over the course of a decade, Sheeran has been gradually improving his song construction without relying too much on pop machinery, and sounds ready to meet this moment.
Bringing in Aaron Dessner, The National polymath who helped Taylor Swift explore the indie-folk woods on Folklore and Evermore, to help produce this vision was a wise decision. Dessner helps Sheeran understand when to assemble a city of instruments around his pain, and when to leave it unadorned.
Some moments are more affecting than others, but ultimately, – succeeds due to its unabashed honesty: from unyielding grief to thoughts of ending it all, Sheeran never shies away from the most curdled pieces of his soul here. The album may not become a blockbuster, but commendably, Sheeran’s intent is catharsis, not commercial returns. More A-listers should take risks like this.
So which tracks represent the early standouts? Although all of Sheeran’s new album is worth exploring, here is a preliminary ranking of every song on the standard edition of –.
On “Spark,” Sheeran and his romantic partner set fire to their troubled past, tossing petty arguments and unnecessary tears into a metaphorical flame, then concluding, “We hope the spark survives.” The song gets off the ground conceptually, its orchestral sweep is marked by an elliptical piano line — and while other songs on the album allow this particular sound to take flight more memorably, “Spark” serves as capable connective tissue in the album’s back half.
There aren’t many popular artists who could handle an all-falsetto chorus like the one Sheeran deploys on “Borderline,” a piano-led rumination on lingering depression — but he powers through in his upper register, blurting out confessions and rhetorical questions with a naked fragility. And the way Sheeran comes down from that high — yearning through plain-spoken lines like “Guess I should take this on the chin / But I don’t even know how all of this began” — makes “Borderline” an even more compelling listen.
Sheeran has always been adept at engineering a waltzing love song, but “Colourblind” offers a twist on the formula of “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” thanks to a newfound maturity — instead of focusing on exploding romance, Sheeran sings about being able to relax with a partner, and wash away all of the day’s brightest hues during a quiet night together. “Colourblind” captures the personal evolution of Sheeran, no longer pluckily searching for love and instead writing about his own grounded reality.
While all of us experience personal hardships, Sheeran has done so as one of the most famous musical artists on the planet — and on the hushed, confessional “Vega,” he admits to struggling as he’s dealt with difficult moments (here, his wife’s diagnosis), especially under the brightest spotlight. “Vega” shines thanks to its lyrical detail: when Sheeran sings, “Need rest, bite, bleed time dry / She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine” as the strings swell, the listener can picture him pacing in a room, alone with his desperation.
“Life Goes On”
Remember back in 2017, when Sheeran launched his ÷ album by releasing “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” on the same day? Consider the back-to-back placement of “Eyes Closed” and “Life Goes On” early in the – track list as a one-two gut-punch that tackles a shared theme of grief through wholly different approaches: here, Sheeran does away with anything hummable, reflecting on his friend’s death with uncluttered folk and a cracked voice.
“Boat” was apparently stripped down from a heavily orchestrated track into a simple acoustic guitar song, although some of the strings and grand piano can still be heard in the mix. Sheeran was correct to pivot: “Boat” works better as both an album opener and an anthem of resilience due to its simplicity, his voice gathering strength as he repeats the line, “But the waves won’t break my boat.”
Dessner packs “Curtains” with ornate production details — playing a whopping 11 instruments himself on the track, while recruiting his brother (and The National band mate) Bryce to play a few as well — but the drums, courtesy of James McAlister, hit the hardest, and offer some rare rock-band tumbles. “Curtains” ponders the moment when it feels okay to whisk away the shades and bask in the sun following personal devastation, and its combination of driving tempo and rousing messaging makes the song an easy choice for a future single.
Immediately following “Sycamore,” a panicked song about preparing for the worst news imaginable, on the album’s track list, “No Strings” acts as both a sigh of relief and affirmation: the worst has passed, and now, Sheeran and his partner can overcome anything together. “We tore the walls down to build them up / Never was in doubt,” Sheeran sings with brimming confidence — and that’s before the drums kick in to add heft to the graceful piano and Sheeran’s soothing words.
“There’s more than sadness we got within us / Let’s put some color into the grey,” Sheeran softly declares on “Dusty,” a restrained electro-pop track inspired by listening to Dusty Springfield with his young daughter. After a run of wrenching songs, “Dusty” offers a calm reprieve: the synths, programmed drums and guitar congeal into a midtempo sway-along, and Sheeran’s voice is often doubled, as if he’s finally arrived at a supported moment.
In between the two pre-release songs on the – track list, “Boat” and “Eyes Closed,” sits perhaps the darkest song of Sheeran’s career: “Salt Water” finds the singer-songwriter prodding his own suicidal thoughts, belting out, “I’m free in salt water / Embrace the deep and leave everything” over a tangle of guitars, cello and tambourine. With its backing vocals on the chorus, “Salt Water” soars as a folk-pop sing-along when divorced from its lyrical context — but as it stands, the longest song on the album is ambitiously unnerving.
Lead single “Eyes Closed” translates so many of Sheeran’s top 40 trademarks — the earworm intro, the emphasized first line of the chorus, the post-refrain vocal hook — into a quiet, mournful song about not knowing how to move forward after losing a loved one. On an album like –, “Eyes Closed” makes for the perfect radio offering, crystallizing the project’s sorrow and presenting the emotion as a catchy, universal product (Max Martin, Shellback and Fred Again.., who produced the track alongside Dessner, surely helped with that effect).
“The Hills of Aberfeldy”
Sheeran began dreaming up the idea of – years ago, and that idea kept getting pushed back and shape-shifted — but “The Hills of Aberfeldy,” written with Foy Vance when Sheeran was an aspiring singer-songwriter, was always intended as the closing track whenever that album came out. Today, “Aberfeldy” sparkles in its wide-eyed intimacy, a rustic love song with string interludes and a sense of patience — as if its message was always meant to endure, after the song was so long preserved.
“End of Youth”
Longtime Sheeran fans slightly thrown off by this album’s shift in tone, and looking for a song to unlock the heaviness, should consider starting with “End of Youth,” which distills all of Sheeran’s best qualities — his sense of melody, his impactful lyricism, his ability to let his voice roam into both huge falsettos and patient rapping without losing its center — into the full-length’s darker shades. The meditation on losing your innocence is purposely bleak, but over a steady beat, Sheeran is firing on all cylinders.
Sheeran wrote “Sycamore” in a state of dread, attempting to focus on a beautiful tree while his wife’s pregnancy complications were unraveling the fabric of his world. That fear resulted in one of the most gorgeously rendered songs of the singer-songwriter’s career: in the same way that “Sycamore” finds Sheeran’s life evolving while overcoming devastation, he uses the song to grow his craft, tossing out open-ended questions and ideas of love’s cyclical nature within straightforward melodies and full-hearted vocals. “Sycamore” will possibly make you cry; within Sheeran’s growing catalog, it will definitely stand out.