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Ed Sheeran’s trial and tribulations: review

A potentially ruinous lawsuit is nobody’s idea of the perfect album launch. But that’s kind of how it’s worked out for Ed Sheeran and his new LP.

On Thursday night the wildly successful British singer dropped “-” — call the album “Subtract” in line with his four previous math-themed releases — just hours after a federal jury in New York decided that he hadn’t cribbed from Marvin Gaye’s Motown classic “Let’s Get It On” in writing his smash 2014 ballad “Thinking Out Loud.”

The win was obviously good news for Sheeran, who’d been accused of copyright infringement by relatives of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend. But even a loss in court — provided it didn’t lead the singer to quit music as he’d suggested on the stand it might — would’ve gone some way toward reframing an artist often perceived as a shameless and coolly efficient hitmaker.

In testimony, Sheeran defended his creative process with clear passion, saying he was insulted by the claim that he’d stolen “Thinking Out Loud,” which won a Grammy Award for song of the year and has been streamed more than 2 billion times on Spotify alone. He played a guitar for jurors to demonstrate the differences between his song and “Let’s Get It On” even as he acknowledged that certain shared compositional building blocks are foundational to pop music.

The effect was to give Sheeran not only a legal advantage but a moral one as well. Seven years after the widely criticized “Blurred Lines” lawsuit — in which a jury concluded that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had plagiarized a different Gaye tune — Sheeran came off as someone attempting to protect both his own interests and those of his fellow songwriters from the greed of the truly cynical.

So: Pretty good promo after all, especially given that his image in the courtroom dovetails with that on “-,” which presents the 32-year-old as a guy fighting valiantly against forces that might undo him and his young family.

As detailed in a sympathetic Disney+ docuseries, “The Sum of It All,” Sheeran spent the first few months of 2022 confronting one trauma after another: the death of his close friend Jamal Edwards, who’d helped get Sheeran’s career off the ground; a cancer diagnosis for his wife, Cherry Seaborn, while she was pregnant with the couple’s second daughter; and an earlier lawsuit alleging that he’d ripped off parts of another artist’s song for his 2017 hit “Shape of You.”

“It’s been a long year and we’re not even halfway there,” he sings in “End of Youth,” which defines adulthood as the point “when pain starts taking over.”

Largely co-produced and co-written by the National’s Aaron Dessner, whom Taylor Swift recommended after she worked with him on “Folklore” and “Evermore,” “-” is deeply, almost proudly immersed in Sheeran’s grief — “I’m standing on the edge, gazing into hell,” goes one line in “Salt Water” — though he’s forever seeking a path out of the agony and anger and anxiety; sometimes he even glimpses one, as in “Curtains,” where he remembers that tears eventually dry without a trace, and “Dusty,” about waking after a long night to listen to records (specifically Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”) with his kids.

For all the turmoil he describes, you wouldn’t call the album raw; Sheeran and Dessner are too meticulous as record-makers to allow anything to feel unfinished. The sound is lush and haunting, with layers of strings, synths and acoustic guitar cradling Sheeran’s close-miked vocals. As he did with Swift, Dessner crafted instrumental beds that he sent to Sheeran to write melodies and lyrics to, and sometimes the result seems to be giving more Aaron than Ed.

That’s OK in the spectral “Colourblind” and the exquisite “Borderline”; it’s more of a problem by the time you get to the numbing home-goods rusticana of “No Strings,” which makes you long for the sonic variety of Sheeran’s other albums, where he’ll toss off a blue-eyed soul jam or a facile little synth-pop number just because he can.

Lyrically, Sheeran has been sharper than he is on “-” — lotta boats being battered by waves and fires lighting up the night sky here. (It’s almost a shock in “Sycamore” when he dispenses with all the metaphors to bring us into the clammy atmosphere of a doctor’s waiting room.) But Sheeran’s singing, with its intricately bent notes and its sense of a sob held just in check, is so vivid that the truth of his experience always comes through.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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