IT’S the most hotly anticipated album release of the year – and likely to be the biggest-selling by miles – and I can reveal Ed Sheeran’s latest collection has been well worth the wait.
Far from continuing where his mega successful previous LP, Equals, left off, Ed has used new offering Subtract to pour his heart out after a traumatic few years which has seen him endure heartache, tragedy and mental health struggles — and he doesn’t hold back.
Although he had reason to be happy last night after winning a US copyright lawsuit which alleged he used parts of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic Let’s Get It On in his 2014 hit Thinking Out Loud.
Ed threatened to quit music if he lost.
Outside court in New York, he said: “I’m obviously very happy with the outcome of this case and it looks like I’m not going to have to retire from my day job after all.
“But at the same time I am absolutely frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all.”
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Ed’s 14-song album, out today, sees him detail his grief after the death of close pal Jamal Edwards and his wife Cherry’s health problems after being diagnosed with a tumour last year.
And as she explains in his new documentary, writing acts as therapy for the superstar dad of two.
Lead single Eyes Closed has already seen him touch on his struggles with coming to terms with his closest friend’s passing, and sets a melancholy tone which follows through most of the tracks.
It is a significant departure from the upbeat pop sound of Equals’ singles Bad Habits, 2Step and Shivers.
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Instead, Subtract is unashamedly sombre at times, with grown-up lyrics laced with wistful acoustic balladry, a stripped-back production and emotive lyrics delivered with soulful intent.
Salt Water sees him pine, “I’m filled up with regret with things I did or never said”, Life Goes On hauntingly asks, “Tell me how my life goes on with you gone?” and End Of Youth tackles his recent struggles head on as he confesses, “I’ve been depressed since you left, tried to fill the hole with wine, stopped the drugs when she came and cleaned my act up overnight”.
It’s strong stuff, demonstrating the full depth of his unrivalled talents, which clearly go way beyond a catchy pop hook.
As Ed jokingly admits, this record is “serious” music which he fears the critics might “actually like”, although they have been typically sneering of his success in the past.
But he adds: “All my biggest records, they hate! But for someone who’s never liked my music ever and sees me as the punchline to a joke? For him to suddenly be like, ‘Oh, you’re not as s*** as I thought you were?’ That doesn’t mean anything.”
Eighth track, Curtains, offers the only departure to a more upbeat sound, and hints at Ed emerging from his trauma as lyrics suggest he’s “done with my hiding place” as he adds: “Tears dry and will leave no trace, and tomorrow’s another day.”
In later tracks on a record which feels at times chronological as well as autobiographical, he tackles his wife’s recent illness in strikingly candid detail, recalling a visit to a doctor’s waiting room together in pretty acoustic number Sycamore with the lines, “Right now in the waiting room, emotions running wild, worried about my lover and I’m worried about our child.
“Waiting on professionals to tell you how it is, what’s he going to say after ‘I think you’d better sit’.
“Brace yourself, something’s about to hit.”
But closers No Strings and Hills Of Aberfeldy hint at the strength of his marriage — which has seen the young couple overcome trauma together — and a brighter outlook.
This may not be a collection of singalong pop anthems, but it’s hard not to be arrested by it’s poignancy and poise.
This is grown-up stuff by an artist deserving of his place at the very top of his game.
Track by track
For all his near unrivalled commercial success, Ed has never benefited from gushing critical acclaim – and he doesn’t care.
While global records have tumbled, snooty music writers have at times poked fun at his catchy hooks and radio-friendly lyrics – dismissing his pop mastery as “lightweight” songcraft.
But Subtract should silence even his most ardent critics, as it tackles life’s toughest subject matter with grace, humility and integrity – with tracks to move even the most hardened listener to tears as he pours his heart out in what feels as much like therapy as a studio session.
This is Ed’s most mature songwriting to date, as well as a brave and honest baring of his soul – with all the raw agony it has had to endure.
A melancholy tone is rarely broken during its 14 tracks – with mid-album song Curtains the standout change in direction, and a welcome relief from what can be a tough, but worthwhile, listen.
And while younger fans may be taken aback at the hard-hitting subjects tackled – which include the grief sparked by the death of his close pal Jamal Edwards and his wife Cherry’s recent major health scare – it may send a powerful message that even the most vibrant of stars can endure the toughest of times.
A proper record, deserving of proper recognition and here’s my track-by-track review . . .
Boat: A sensitive and appropriate opener, Ed released Boat in the run-up to today’s album unveiling accompanied by a haunting video shot on the Suffolk coast near his home.
As waves crash into the singer, he insists “but the waves won’t break my boat” – a positive mantra amid an acknowledgement of the tough times addressed by the subsequent 13 tracks.
Salt Water: Lengthy by Ed’s standards, but this is anthemic and layered – and sets a clear and determined tone for what is to follow, with the refrain “It was just a dream, was it just a dream?” hinting at the star’s uncertainty.
Strummed acoustic chords are backed by synths and strings which build and develop symphonically beneath strained lyrics.
Eyes Closed: The lead single, and as close as Ed gets to one of his trademark singalong ballad choruses.
Memorable lyrics evoke the sadness of lose and solitude following the passing of a close pal, as he recounts “everywhere I look I still see you”.
Life Goes On: Pure acoustic balladry, and among the most poignant lyrically as Ed sings: “Tell me how my life goes on with you gone, I suppose I’ll sink like a stone?”
Dusty: Lighter and with a faster tempo, Dusty’s lyrics are more esoteric and intriguing than the blunter and direct feel of others.
End Of Youth: Unashamedly sombre, this is among the more challenging listens on the album – but feels like for Ed it is perhaps the most poignant.
Heartbreaking lyrics and a sense of pained anguish are clear.
Colourblind: Perhaps the track the album could have comfortably lost – as it feels overshadowed by the songs either side of it.
Curtains: My favourite track on the album, and a welcome break in tone which concentrates the attention and allows some release before returning to acoustic melancholy.
Rockier than the rest of the record, the production is more layered to bring in heavier beats and layered guitars alongside a sense of positivity after a turbulent time.
Borderline: A slight comedown from the enthusiasm and optimism of the preceding track, as Ed hints at masking his pain and grief with alcohol.
Spark: A piano chord progression and complex string arrangements make this a standout – with lyrics hinting at the strain a recent event had put on his home life.
Great songcraft and powerful balladry combine with Ed’s strongest vocal performance.
Vega: Unusual yet emotive lyrics tell the tale of Cherry’s health battle with a tumour, and a sense of being overwhelmed by pressures thrown at him.
Ed croons: “Gotta keep the focus, If we believe then she’ll get better.” Therapeutic and worldly.
Sycamore: Pretty, wistful and moving, this leaps out as a highlight among the gentle acoustic tracks – and it’s difficult to overlook the immediately striking lyrical honesty that tells the story of Ed and Cherry’s visit to a doctor for what would become the terrifying tumour diagnosis.
Opening lines take the listener to the heart of Ed’s world and the garden of his home, before a visit to a doctor’s waiting room and the fear of the unknown – ending harrowingly with the line, “Sycamore in the field, a lonely tree – darling what will become of you and me?”
No Strings: Another of the standout tracks lyrically, No Strings is a passionate love song and ode to Ed’s marriage and family. “If we can make it through this year,” he sings, “then nothing can break us”.
The track is packed with angst and emotion, but positivity and optimism.
The Hills Of Aberfeldy: A distinctly Celtic flavour hints at more upbeat possibilities, which never quite materialise.
But as a closing track it points to a sense of tranquillity and serenity after a period of trauma and pain – and acts as a clear nod of gratitude and love to Cherry.
SOFA SO GOOD, SAM
SAM Ryder played a blinder with his inspirational anthem Space Man at Eurovision last year but he will return to the contest’s stage with an even more rousing single next Saturday.
I have learned he will perform his new single Mountain, which is about overcoming adversity, as the interval act at the final in Liverpool, with the song coming out the day before.
In moving lyrics, he sings: “Rough seas might pull me under and dark clouds might dim my days.
“There’s always bright tomorrows and I close my eyes and I say, remember how you made it through the fire.
“Remember how you’ve come so far. An unstoppable force of nature. That’s what you are.”
Then in the huge chorus, he continues: “I am a mountain and down in the valley below is all that I’ve overcome.”
Sam wrote the song last autumn, weeks before he released his No1 debut album There’s Nothing But Space, Man.
The singer, who finished in second place at last year’s event in Turin to Ukraine’s entry Kalush Orchestra, told me: “I was sitting on my couch at home and wrote it.
This was the first song I’ve written by myself in years, which was really nice.
“This is quite special so I’m thankful that this idea fell out of the sky.”
Designs on Dua
SHE can sing, dance, model and act and now Dua Lipa has become a fashion designer.
The Levitating singer has teamed up with Donatella Versace to design the label’s La Vacanza women’s collection.
She will be at a fashion show in Cannes, France, on May 23 to launch the range.
Donatella said: “Working with Dua has been very exciting and I love the dynamic between us.
“Dua is strong, fearless and free, and her creative vision is exceptional.”
Dua, who stars in the upcoming Barbie film, added: “For her to give me the honour of co-designing this collection and letting my summer inspirations go wild has been a dream.
“I am so proud of this collection and cannot wait to debut it.”
EMMA Willis is eyeing up a move to Radio 2 and will be tested out with a show next weekend.
The former Big Brother host will cover Michael Ball’s Sunday 11am to 1pm programme on May 14 as her debut on the station.
It is hoped it could pave the way for her to become a regular on the airwaves, which has proved a success for Vernon Kay who has successfully made the move from TV to radio.
Emma said: “Well, this is exciting, terrifying.
“I’m heading into Radio 2 to sit in for the very fabulous Michael Ball. Come join me for some great guests and cracking Sunday tunes.”
She got used to grilling people during exit interviews on Big Brother and will turn those skills to interviewing celebrity guests, as she will be joined on the show by comedian Ruby Wax and presenter Steve Jones.
Vernon spent a year regularly covering for other DJs on the station before being announced as Ken Bruce’s replacement, and will begin his mid-morning weekday show on May 15.
Emma is well liked by the nation, so there’s absolutely no reason why she can’t follow suit.
PRIZE IS STUFF OF STREAMS
THE Brits has launched a new prize called the Brit Billion Award, and a load of my favourite stars have already got their hands on one.
Lewis Capaldi, Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding, Coldplay, George Ezra and Abba are among those who have been presented with the new gong, which recognises artists who have racked up a billion UK streams.
Accepting his prize, Lewis said: “I am so buzzing to be one of the first artists ever to be given a Brit Billion Award.
“Never in a million years did I think any of this stuff would happen, but now it has, I will gladly accept each and every award.
“You have my address.”
RIRI’S ROCKING HER BUMP
RIHANNA is on a mission to reinvent pregnancy fashion.
She wore this leather trench coat, which was mostly unzipped, to head out on a dinner date with her rapper boyfriend A$AP Rocky.
The Diamonds singer teamed it with these thigh-high boots, a miniskirt and bra, while her bump was on full display.
I’m not sure the same outfit would catch on here, not least as most women would probably be frozen.
Rihanna is due to give birth this summer.
She and A$AP had their first child, a boy, in May last year.
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But she isn’t letting motherhood slow her down, as she has also just been cast as the voice actress for Smurfette in a new live action Smurfs movie, which she will also create music for.
That will be more appropriate for her little ’uns than most of her music videos.
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