What happens when loss strips you of your plans for the future? How do you process the fragility of life and the pain of illness? For Ed Sheeran, the answer might lie in his fifth studio album, “-” (pronounced “subtract”), a collection of lament psalms that help listeners sit in sadness and anxiety, while at the same time inviting them to hope that something good will come out of pain.
In February of 2022, Ed’s pregnant wife Cherry Seaborn discovered a cancerous lump on her arm. That same week, Ed’s best friend and English music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards died at age 31. Later that month, Ed was fighting for his integrity as a songwriter in a plagiarism court case. “I felt like I was drowning, head below the surface, looking up but not being able to break through for air,” he wrote in a note posted on social media in early 2023. “Vega,” which moves us through the grieving stages of denial and anger, was written during this catastrophic week: “This week was heavy, I buckled under all the weight / What can you do but pray?”
In The Sum of It All, a Disney Plus documentary following Sheeran and Seaborn on their journey of grief, radiation treatments, and recovery, we get a glimpse of how Sheeran has processed—or more accurately, not processed—the death of his friend and the anxiety induced by his wife’s illness. He believes it has been a journey of becoming an adult. “Grief instantly ends your youth,” he says. We hear this pain echoed in his raspy, strained vocals on “End of Youth”: “Is this the ending of our youth when pain starts taking over? / I just don't know if I can ever just let it go.”
Up to a certain point in the documentary, Sheeran is portrayed as a confident performer: in control and resilient. So I found it profoundly heartbreaking when he broke down on stage while playing the Subtract album in front of an audience for the first time. “I felt like when Jamal died,” he says to the crowd of strangers, his voice cracking, “I wanted the entire world to stop . . . and it felt like the next day, life just resumed.” He fluctuates between singing and crying, unable to continue for long stretches of time. The visuals cut to crashing waves, the audio highlights a ringing feedback, and there is a disorientating unevenness of tone and focus. Even though his tears are met with love, understanding, and empathy, Sheeran is profoundly ashamed by his emotions.
The album helps listeners sit in sadness and anxiety.
What happens when grief strips us of our pride? What do we do when our emotions overtake us? When I’m drowning in my anxiety and depression, I feel unprepared and out of control. When I am faced with the fragility of life, I don’t want platitudes—I just want someone to understand. I find this deep comfort in the Psalms, the poetry of the people of God. These songs allow me to cry out to God and to ask questions without shame. From the cross Jesus cried out a familiar psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 goes on to say:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Although Sheeran never explicitly turns to spirituality or religion, I hear lament language throughout Subtract. In “Borderline,” he explores his instinct to run from his emotions, his voice whispery and tentative: “Right now, I feel I'm running from the light / Engulfed in darkness / Shielded from my eyes / One foot in, one out / I'm stuck on the borderline / Which way will I?” In “Life Goes On,” he expresses the difficulty of watching life move forward after a loved one’s death: “So tell me how / How my life goes on with you gone? / I suppose I'll sink like a stone / If you leave me now / Oh, the storms will roll / Easy come, hard go / Then life goes on.” In “Boat,” he uses visuals of storms and water to help us understand his grief. The whole song sings like a question: “Why do I breathe? What do I need?” he asks. Sheeran’s staccato delivery on the last part of the chorus suggests he may not want to move on from the loss: “They say that all scars will heal, but I know / maybe I won't.”
I think the most radical promise of all is that God does not abandon us in our pain. Instead, God understands our pain and grieves alongside us. The Savior who cried out from the cross knows what it is like to feel loss, to weep, and not feel comforted. But we also know that because of that Savior, hope is not lost. So, like every lament song in the psalm book, Psalm 22 makes a turn to the light:
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
Sheeran, too, holds on to hope even as he faces the deepest, darkest parts of himself: “There's more than sadness we got within us / Let's put some color into the gray,” he sings in “Dusty,” a song written for his daughter. The smooth bass line and Sheeran’s tender tone are a contrast to the darker tracks on the album. In “No Strings,” we get a piano-driven ballad that sounds like a New Year’s Eve singalong: “If we make it through this year / We should celebrate it / And we did not fight for love / Just to let it be defeated.”
“There’s beauty when it’s bleak,” Sheeran reminds himself on “Boat.” The promise of the resurrection that Jesus offers us is just that: there is light in the darkness, comfort can be found in the throes of grief, a promise is given in the pain. God—the Comforter, Creator, and Sustainer—will never leave us or forsake us.