A decade ago, Ed Sheeran began a quest. He named his first album + (“Plus”) and his 2014 follow-up x (“Multiply”) as part of a master plan. “‘Multiply’ was called ‘Multiply’ because it made everything that was on ‘Plus’ bigger,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. “From the venues to the songs to the radio plays to the sales. I don’t know what the theme on the next album is yet because I haven’t made it.”
That ended up being 2017’s ÷ (“Divide), which, despite its more reductive title, became his biggest yet: It hit No. 1 in the United States and all over Europe, yielded chart-topping singles, and led to the highest-grossing tour of all time. It also made Sheeran a household name — so it makes sense that, after a slight diversion in 2019’s No.6 Collaborations Project, he’s chosen to not call his next album – (“Subtract”). Instead, the more harmonious = (“Equals”) will drop in October.
But as Sheeran told MTV News ahead of the 2021 VMAs, don’t count out “Subtract” just yet. “There’s one more album after ‘Equals,'” he told correspondent Dometi Pongo on the red carpet, standing with his label signee Maisie Peters. “And then the mathematics are done.”
While he didn’t explicitly confirm that the final one in the sequence would, in fact, be called -, the process of elimination would suggest it. If that’s true, that same EW interview might point toward what we could expect an album called “Subtract” to sound like: “My idea for ‘Subtract’ was to not have anything on it, just be an acoustic record.”
“Equals,” meanwhile, is due to be very much not an acoustic record. Though the singer-songwriter touches on early single “Visiting Hours” might suggest it, fellow = tracks “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” lean very heavily into dance-pop. When he performed “Shivers” at last night’s VMAs, he gripped his acoustic guitar as always, though he did it while backed up with a full band and plenty of pop style.
It seems fair to assume that =, like Sheeran’s preceding albums, will be a mixed bag of ballads and more pop-driven bangers. And if his potential future “Subtract” era brings a return to his folky roots, it’ll also present some real closure. Once the math symbols are through, Sheeran said to MTV News, “then it’s five more records with a plan.”
There’s something extremely satisfying about seeing Sheeran carry out this plan, which could have very easily become a mere gimmick in the vein of Sufjan Stevens’s 50 states project. He’s stuck to his guns through massive life changes — marriage, fatherhood — and it’s given him some great perspective.
“For the whole of ‘Divide,’ I didn’t look back. I was just forward, forward, forward,” he told MTV News. “And then I got to the end of it, and I was like, I wish I’d stopped for a little bit and just been like, ah, this went well.” Spoken like a true balanced equation.
Check out all the winner’s from the 2021 VMAs right here.