The ‘trapdoor’ to Ed Sheeran’s soul reveals... another catchy pop ballad
We have been hearing a lot about Ed Sheeran’s woes recently; how trials and tribulations have led him to create the most personal music of his life, “opening the trapdoor to my soul.” Well, on the evidence of the first offering from this self-revealing project, even at its most scarred and bereft, Sheeran’s soul is filled with catchy pop hooks and singalong melodies.
Eyes Closed is the first single from the singer-songwriting superstar’s new album, Subtract (-). A stirring, heartfelt ballad about grief, it rides along on a nimble guitar plucked like a cello, with Sheeran singing with soulful fluidity about drinking alone in a bar thinking about someone he has lost.
The verses sketch the scene with deft economy and a simplistic rhyming scheme (“I know it’s a bad idea / But how can I help myself? / Been inside for most this year / And I thought a few drinks they might help”) lifting through an elegant bridge (“I pictured this year a little bit different / Went into February / I step in the bar, it hit me so hard / How can it be this heavy?”) to an explosively emotional chorus about dancing with eyes closed because “everywhere I look I still see you.” It is a perfectly formed, incredibly effective sad anthem but really not what the pre-publicity has threatened.
Sheeran has spoken about his new album being composed in a state of “fear, depression and anxiety” grappling with his “deepest and darkest thoughts” in the wake of the death of his “best friend” and music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards in February last year (from complications from recreational drug use), the serious illness of his wife during her pregnancy (a tumour was successfully removed in June) and the stress of a plagiarism trial he eventually won in April 2022. Working with Aaron Dessner of broodingly atmospheric alt rock American band The National, Sheeran claimed that “for the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like.”
Hmm. I am not sure how releasing a generic ballad sure to rocket to number one all over the world fits with that description. Despite the promise of stripping his art back to its essence, the production is lean, but soft and full, and the song format doesn’t really differ from other Sheeran monster ballads such as Perfect and Thinking Out Loud.
The verse, bridge, chorus format is mathematically on point, the A-B-A-B rhyming scheme undemanding and the sentiments expressed in vague platitudes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hallmark card: “Every song reminds me you’re gone,” “The colours are more than blue” “I can’t help but missing you.”
It certainly conveys a sense of emotional torment, but it is more akin to what you might expect from, say, a young Cat Stevens rather than Nick Cave or Bob Dylan enduring a dark night of the soul. The real giveaway that Sheeran can’t resist his pop instincts is the perky end of chorus, where he starts singing “aye-aye-eye’s closed” to a handclap that can barely restrain itself from breaking out into a dancefloor jig.
It is a sweet and heartfelt song, and beautifully put together, so I am prepared to give Sheeran the benefit of early doubts. But I hope there is a little more behind the trapdoor than this.
Subtract (-) is released on May 5