- (Deluxe)

- (Deluxe)

It doesn’t take long for Ed Sheeran to reveal the heart of his sixth album. About 40 seconds into opening track “Boat,” he sings, “They say that all scars will heal but I know/Maybe I won’t/But the waves won't break my boat.” Written in the wake of—and during—deeply challenging times, - is “an album about grief and depression and stuff,” as Sheeran tells Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “‘Boat’ is about resilience: ‘I know that I’m never going to be all right, but whatever waves come, I’m going to remain floating.’ Your life can fit around grief. You don’t have to get over anything. I will never, ever, ever get over Jamal [Edwards, SB.TV founder and Sheeran’s best friend] dying at 31. I don’t want to, I don’t feel like I have to. I feel like, if I want to cry, I can cry.” It’s not a simple outpouring, though; these are songs that attempt to process events, the work of a songwriter who’s learned that trauma and anxiety are not obstacles to overcome and bury, but experiences that you absorb, live with, and, hopefully, draw strength from. “I find this a lot when my friends are going through things,” he says. “Everyone you ever speak to, they go, ‘I’m doing so much better now.’ And I don't believe them, because I don’t [believe] anyone at any point is just fixed. It’s the same thing with depression. It’s not a switch that you can just go, ‘Now I feel fine.’ It’s something that is constantly there and it’s either here or it’s here or it’s here.” There are passages of arresting sadness here. On “Eyes Closed,” Sheeran’s isolated and unfastened by Edwards’ sudden passing, before “Sycamore” places us in a doctor’s waiting room as Sheeran and his pregnant wife Cherry Seaborn steel themselves for news about her tumor diagnosis. However, optimism and fortitude flood through as he looks to his family. Piano ballad “No Strings” salutes the galvanizing strength of his love for Seaborn, and fatherhood brings light and warmth in on “Dusty,” where he recounts playing favorite albums for his young daughter. “The thing about grieving or even anxiety about Cherry's health or feeling depressed, none of that matters with your kids,” he says. “I’d cry myself to sleep after spending hours and hours at Jamal’s mural [near Edwards’ childhood home in Acton, West London]. And then waking up in the morning at six to your daughter being like, ‘Hey, let's eat porridge. Let's listen to…’ There is a switch that you can flip; you go into dad mode, like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ ’Cause I don’t want my daughters ever feeling that I'm like that. Especially not for now.” Sheeran’s explored his experiences with anxiety and depression in songs before, but rarely with such unshrinking openness. “This is stuff that I’m still going through, I’m still processing,” he says. “And I feel like this record is definitely the most human that I’ve been. I hate it when artists go, ‘It’s my most personal record yet,’ because I feel like each record I put out is super personal. This is just more uncomfortable. I think it’s my most uncomfortable record.” It’s right, then, that the music never overwhelms or shrouds a singer at his most raw and vulnerable. Sheeran worked with The National’s Aaron Dessner on the recommendation of friend Taylor Swift (who collaborated with Dessner across her folklore, evermore, and Midnights albums), and they’ve conjured arrangements that are spare and delicate. Pianos and guitar forge aching melodies, while background strings and electronics provide a gauze for Sheeran to embroider his reflections upon. If - marks a return to Sheeran’s acoustic singer-songwriter origins, it was made in a way that felt fresh. Dessner passed musical ideas to Sheeran, who would build on them with a near-stream-of-consciousness spontaneity. “I didn’t think anything: The first thing that came out, I wrote down, and then I moved on and moved on to the next one,” says Sheeran. “Aaron sent me seven instrumentals one day and I sent them all back in two and a half hours.” It’s inspired songs whose intimacy brings us closer than we’ve ever been to one of the world’s biggest pop stars. “Music isn’t a fabrication,” he says. “Music is what you’re going through at that time. It might be ‘Shivers.’ You might feel happy and write a love song that people can dance to, but it is actual life, it’s actual emotions.”

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