Ed Sheeran’s ‘Subtract’ Debut: What Does a No. 2 Start Mean, and Which Track Could Become a Hit?

On this week’s Billboard 200 chart, Ed Sheeran’s – (pronounced Subtract) scores the top debut of the week, starting at No. 2 (behind Morgan Wallen’s One Thing at a Time, which spends a 10th week at No. 1) with 112,000 equivalent album units, according to Luminate. The album also launches at No. 1 on the Top Album Sales chart, with Sheeran’s largest sales week since 2017.



Ed Sheeran

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Subtract marks a departure in sound for Sheeran, who worked with producer Aaron Dessner and used the album as an outlet for his grief and pain following a traumatic beginning to his 2022. “Eyes Closed,” the album’s lead single, became a top 40 hit on the Hot 100 upon its March release, and a new version of the song “Life Goes On,” featuring country superstar Luke Combs, was recently released.

What does the No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 signify for Sheeran? And which song from Subtract could turn into a hit single? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Like a whole lot of albums this year, Ed Sheeran’s latest is blocked by Morgan Wallen’s One Thing at a Time from the top of the Billboard 200. On a scale of 1-10, from crushed to elated, how are you feeling about a No. 2 debut with 112,000 equivalent album units if you’re Ed?

Andrew Unterberger: Solid 6. Those are about the numbers that Sheeran’s =(Equals) album did two years ago, with a huge pop hit and generally more commercial momentum behind him. Stinks to not get the No. 1, and it doesn’t seem like this album is going to have a ton of commercial impact beyond the first week, but given the lack of advance buzz for the set (and how divided his attention has been in the weeks leading up to its release), I think that number is on the high end of the range I might expect for its first week. 

Jason Lipshutz: A 3. This album, an acoustic exploration of personal pain, was always viewed as a sonic detour for Sheeran, so its commercial performance was likely going to differ from that of his more radio-ready projects. And ultimately, the launch of Subtract falls right in line with the bow of 2021’s Equals, which was preceded by the hit “Bad Habits” and debuted at No. 1 with 118,000 equivalent album units. Wallen’s One Thing at a Time is a juggernaut, and debuting right behind it, with a comparable total to Sheeran’s last full-length, should be considered a generally positive development.

Katie Atkinson: A solid 5. While Ed has a proven track record for No. 1 albums at this point – with every studio album since 2014’s X (Multiply) topping the Billboard 200 – I don’t get the impression he made Subtract with the charts or pop radio in mind. Actually, he might not have even cared if anyone beyond his diehard fans heard it. As he expressed in his Disney+ docuseries, Sheeran was working through a lot of “heavy stuff” during this album, which naturally made for a quieter, more understated album. It’s a project worth listening to, but it’s not the kind of bombastic project that skyrockets to No. 1. In fact, I’d say No. 2 is mighty impressive for this personal, weighty album.

Lyndsey Havens: 8.5. Ed seems like a guy who wants to win, so I’m sure he would have hoped for a No. 1 debut. But that said, to enter the tally behind a top-spot-blocking behemoth and with over 100,000 units is commendable. To know just how much an album that’s meant to honor his family and late friend Jamal Edwards is resonating with fans should arguably be more gratifying than securing a No. 1.

Rania Aniftos: A 4. After watching his The Sum of It All documentary, I learned that Sheeran is really, really hard on himself. Given that knowledge, and also how different this album is from his past few, I’d be pretty disappointed. He really put his heart on his sleeve and tried something new, which I do applaud him for, despite maybe a less-than-ideal outcome. 

2. While Sheeran’s previous three studio albums were each preceded by top 10 Hot 100 hits, Subtract lead single “Eyes Closed” has thus far peaked at No. 19. Are you surprised that the single hasn’t taken off yet?

Andrew Unterberger: No. The song just doesn’t have a lot of juice to it — it sounds like a less-striking copy of older Sheeran cuts, without any of the left-turn unexpectedness we were led to expect from this album. Radio will probably continue to play it a little while longer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a couple of months, they’re back to playing “Bad Habits” or “Shivers” in heavier rotation. 

Jason Lipshutz: Yes! Very! I first heard “Eyes Closed” a couple of months before its release, and thought that the song – with its combination of finger-picked riff, understated production, affecting emotion and post-chorus “ay-yi-yi” hook – would become another smash for Sheeran. “Eyes Closed” hasn’t connected thus far, and it may never, especially if top 40 radio moves on to his version of “Life Goes On” with Luke Combs. I would have bet big on the lead single blowing up here, but as of now, it seems I would have lost that bet.

Katie Atkinson: No, but only because I think this one will be a slower burn. Sonically, it’s one of the more upbeat songs on the project, and its bittersweet lyrics convey the kind of universal feeling of loss that could eventually connect with an adult contemporary or adult pop radio audience – à la Maroon 5’s “Memories” – a 10-week-plus No. 1 at both formats. Sheeran’s own “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” were both dominant there as well, so I think there will (eventually) be an appetite for this song.

Lyndsey Havens: Not really. Compared to previous singles like “Bad Habits” or “Shivers” off Equals, both of which were sinewy pop hits, or “I Don’t Care” with Justin Bieber from No. 6 Collaborations Project, “Eyes Closed” is most similar to 2017’s Divide. But even songs like “Castle On a Hill” and “Shape of You” packed a bit more of a punch. I think “Eyes Closed” is a stunning ode to loss, but perhaps not what everyone is gravitating towards as we enter the summer months. 

Rania Aniftos: No, but only because I think we’re in a readjustment period when it comes to Sheeran’s new music. We had a few years where he was giving us some really catchy pop hits like “Shivers,” “Bad Habits” and “Shape of You,” so Sheeran returning to his softer state might take some getting used to, both from fans and from radio.  

3. Some of Sheeran’s biggest hits, from “Thinking Out Loud” to “Perfect” to “Shivers,” were not lead singles. Is there a song on the new album that you has a shot at taking off?

Andrew Unterberger: No, though “Curtains” is a real highlight from the set that I think would have made for a much bolder and more attention-grabbing lead single — even if its commercial upside would’ve also been somewhat limited. (As a near-carbon copy of “Thinking Out Loud,” maybe “Life Goes On” could also benefit from the attention the former has received over the course of Sheeran’s much-publicized recent trial.) 

Jason Lipshutz: “Life Goes On” is an effective belt-along in the vein of Sheeran’s bigger ballads, and the new version featuring Luke Combs augments the better qualities of the track. Yet the song I’m keeping an eye on is “Curtains,” which sounds primed for an adult-contemporary takeover if the album campaign allows. The soaring chorus has seeped into my brain – I find myself going “Sun… SHINE! SHINE!” multiple times a day – and the guitar-and-strings arrangement has real teeth.

Katie Atkinson: I have to lobby for “Curtains.” I think it’s a perfect midway point between Ed’s ballads and his “Shape of You”-style radio hits – it’s catchy and has rapid-fire clever lyrics, but also has a bit more of a rock groove that really shows off his musical skills beyond his acoustic slow-tempo numbers. Also, its optimistic spirit is right there in the chorus: Let’s pull back the curtains and see the sun shine.

Lyndsey Havens: “Sycamore” is a gorgeous Ed song that I think people will connect with even more over time. It’s a stellar snapshot of what Ed has always done best, which is tell a beautiful love story in the length of a pop song — only now, the one he’s telling is about what happens after you find that love. It’s not always perfect, and he’s not shying away from that.

Rania Aniftos: I’m torn between “Curtains” and “End of Youth.” I think “Curtains” is the more upbeat, digestible track on the album, and has some hopeful lyrics that we can all relate to about coming out of a dark period. Similarly, “End of Youth” has themes of fear and aging that are so universal that it might connect to enough people to make it a hit.

4. The new album is a mostly acoustic offering that focuses on a difficult period in Sheeran’s personal life — a sharp left turn in sound for a stadium headliner. How do you think the album will endure within Sheeran’s discography? 

Andrew Unterberger: I don’t think it’s really that much of an outlier in his catalog, to be honest — the only way it obviously differs from past Sheeran LPs to me is the lack of an obvious pop single, and even without those clear radio plays, it’s not like this set is starkly uncommercial by any means. There are some good songs here, and I imagine one or two might endure as fan favorites, but ultimately I just don’t think this is an album many people are going to think of when they think of Ed Sheeran decades from now. 

Jason Lipshutz: Regardless of its commercial performance, Subtract was a risk that I’m glad that Sheeran took: instead of downplaying his personal difficulties and tossing out more pop hits, the superstar changed up his formula, challenged himself as a songwriter and presented his situation with unflinching honesty. Not all of Subtract is successful, but the album stays true to Sheeran’s grief, and offers empathy to any listener experiencing something similar. It’s going to age well.

Katie Atkinson: I find it to be a very worthwhile, if at times a challenging, listen. I think a lot of the lyrical themes of drowning in an infinite ocean can make some of the music feel hopeless – but like navigating the stages of grief, there is life beyond hopelessness, as shown in the more positive moments, as Sheeran begins to heal from all the personal trauma that came his way. The acoustic vibe also fits Sheeran’s busking beginnings, but I think in the end, I probably prefer my Ed in a cheekier musical space, so I would likely turn to other albums for repeat listens.

Lyndsey Havens: I think a lot of these songs will find a home in the “deep cut” section of Ed’s future tours, and rightfully so. Because of how personal they are, I don’t think they would naturally fit alongside some of his more danceable pop hits on a setlist, but that doesn’t mean they’ll fall to the wayside, either. I think with time — and as some of his fanbase perhaps hits the place in life where these songs resonate on a deeper level — the songs that make up Subtract will be held close. 

Rania Aniftos: I look at Subtract the same way I look at Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore. They’ll hold a vulnerable, acoustic moment during Sheeran’s tours, though I still think fans will still mostly look forward to hearing the hits and the throwback tracks. 

5. A new version of “Life Goes On” features Luke Combs, and in a recent chat with Billboard, Sheeran expressed interest in making a country project. Ed Goes To Nashville: yee-haw or yee-naw?

Andrew Unterberger: Yee-haw! Perhaps Sheeran’s most underrated career strength is his impressive adaptability to different sounds and genres, from Afrobeats to reggaetón to EDM. He’d be a particularly natural fit in country. I’d only hope he explores more than the staid balladry of Nashville, since he’s already maybe a little too deep into that pocket at this point in his career. 

Jason Lipshutz: Yee-haw! Even if Sheeran doesn’t record a full country album, maybe we get a little more of that flavor on his next Collaborations project? As a fan of Subtract, I’m down to see what other rabbit holes he can successfully leap down.

Katie Atkinson: Yee-haw! Obviously it served his superstar bestie well for many years, and his voice alongside Combs’ was a perfect (sorry) match at the ACM Awards. A full country project from Ed would make all the sense in the world.

Lyndsey Havens: Yee freaking haw.

Rania Aniftos: I mean, given the Billboard 200 this week, I’d say yee-haw! Let’s get Morgan Wallen on the phone.