Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran
Image: Commons Wikimedia

Critics have welcomed Ed Sheeran's subdued new album - (Subtract), which sees him reflect on a challenging year.

The album was released on Friday, hours after Sheeran won a plagiarism court case in the US.

Subtract, which strikes a darker and more introspective tone, was described by the Guardian as "a noticeably different prospect to previous albums".

Last year, Sheeran's friend Jamal Edwards died and his wife was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant.

The release of - (Subtract) marks the conclusion of Sheeran's series of albums named after mathematical symbols, following + (Plus), x (Multiply), รท (Divide) and = (Equals).

The singer had long intended for Subtract to be more acoustic and stripped-back than his usual musical style, to reflect its title.

However, during the songwriting process, Sheeran abandoned many of the songs he had crafted for the album over many years, in favour of new songs which directly referenced the challenges he faced in his personal life in 2022.

"Most dominant is the feeling that he has had a pretty awful time recently," said Will Hodgkinson of the Times in a four-star review of the record.

"Sticking for the most part to the acoustic folk-pop he first made his name with, Sheeran really does seem to be working through his emotional tumult in musical form."

He added: "There is another quality that shines through here and it makes Sheeran's least poetic moments work in spite of themselves: unpretentiousness. You never doubt that he means what he sings about."

Subtract sees Sheeran collaborate with The National's Aaron Dessner, the musician who helped shaped Taylor Swift's acclaimed lockdown albums Folklore and Evermore.

Like Swift did on those records, Sheeran adopts a muted style on Subtract, with radio hits generally replaced by a more subdued and downtempo sound.

"Under the subtle guidance of Dessner, Sheeran mostly manages to restrain his populist instincts and let songs unfold at a measured pace," wrote the Telegraph's Neil McCormick, awarding the album five stars.

"The result is a fluid, emotional, anxious and atmospheric album of therapeutic self-healing, in which the raw immediacy of Sheeran's feelings takes priority, shaking and warping material in subtle, twisty and deeply personal directions. In the process, Subtract has become something less strategic than originally planned and more interesting for it."

He added: "Even at his most downbeat, Sheeran clearly finds music a balm for suffering souls, with the result that an album born of grief and depression is not remotely hard going."

The album's launch follows the release on Disney+ of The Sum of it All, a docuseries which followed Sheeran as he recorded the album while navigating challenges in his personal life.

On Subtract, Sheeran directly references the death of Edwards, a music entrepreneur who helped launch his career, as well as his wife Cherry Seaborn's cancer diagnosis, both of which occurred in early 2022.

Weeks later, Sheeran faced a court case, which he ultimately won, after he was accused of copying elements of his monster 2017 hit Shape of You.

Earlier this year, he faced another copyright trial, after Marvin Gaye's estate accused him of plagiarising the soul musician's classic hit Let's Get It On when composing his 2014 single Thinking Out Loud.

But on Thursday, a US court ruled Sheeran had not copied Gaye's song. Speaking outside court, the singer said: "If the jury had decided this matter the other way we might as well say goodbye to the creative freedom of songwriters."

Friday's release of Subtract had been long-scheduled, but the timing of the court case meant the album came out just hours after the ruling.

Its downbeat nature means the album is lighter on potential chart hits than Sheeran's previous albums, but it does feature his single Eyes Closed, which reached number one in April.

The Guardian's Alexis Petridis noted Dessner's discernible influence on Subtract in his four-star review.

"Dessner decks out the songs in tastefully muted shades, a sound familiar from Folklore's softer moments: understated string arrangements; twinkling, spectral synthesisers; gentle breezes of feedback and reverb-drenched electric guitars, the sound of fingers scraping along the strings as loud as the notes," he said.

"It's atmospheric and beautifully done, although it can get monotonous: the full drum kit and distorted guitar that kick in on Curtains are curiously jolting."

He concluded: "Subtract is easily his best album. But it's also the first Ed Sheeran album since his debut for which you can't confidently predict eye-watering commercial success."

However, NME's Nick Levine was somewhat less enthusiastic, awarding the album three stars.

"Most of Subtract is doggedly one-paced, an often drawback of Dessner's mellow production stylings," he wrote.

"If it becomes a little samey in places, it could be argued that this is an authentic representation of the mental health issues Sheeran was working through at the time.

"For the most part, Subtract feels like a warm but cautious hug from a sensitive friend - Dessner gives Sheeran space to say what's on his mind without trying to crowd him."

There was another three-star review from The Independent's Roisin O'Connor, who said: "It's certainly a departure, of sorts, for the better.

"Lyrically, the album does fall short, but then Sheeran has spent over a decade trading in vague yet universal issues. Heartbroken? Crushing on someone? Drinking with mates? He has you covered. Now he's trying his best to open up."

"For the most part, Subtract is testament to the old adage that less is, often, much more."

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney of the Financial Times said Subtract enjoyed "a sense of coherence that was missing from 2021's Equals", but only awarded it three stars overall.

"His voice is particularly prominent, with singing filling almost all the acoustic space," he wrote. "The effect is congruent with the disappearance of instrumental intros in the grabby era of streaming, but it's also that of a person wanting to get something off their chest."