“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 –.