You don’t need to be a music aficionado to be all too aware of the meteoric rising star that is Ed Sheeran. The ubiquitous musician has scooped many awards over the past few years, his plaudits including wins at the Brit, Ivor Novello and Q Awards, alongside armful of nominations for prizes as prestigious as the MOBO, Grammy and MTV Video Music Awards. His studio album + (2011) has received quintuple platinum status by the BPI, topping music charts all around the globe, and his June 2014 album release X is widely expected to reach, and possibly even exceed, the success of his debut.
Much interest has surrounded Afire Love, the twelfth track on Sheeran’s new album, which is a song that he has composed in memory of his late grandfather who had been affected by Alzheimer’s Disease for a period of twenty years. As recounted in many interviews at the time of the album’s release, Sheeran was close to his grandfather and began writing the song only two weeks before his death, completing it at the time of his funeral. Thus the song could not fail to be an emotional account of a life lived well, of a man beloved by his family who had fought a long battle against illness.
Sheeran has never been an artist to shy away from controversial subject matter. His songs, often performed at very high-profile events, have dealt with issues as divisive as alcohol abuse and abortion. Thus he addresses the issue of Alzheimer’s Disease with characteristic candour, never shrinking from the emotional turbulence that can - and does - affect the friends and family of a person who has dementia, as well as the person themselves.
Afire Love initially considers dementia in terms which have become familiar in song-writing and poetry - a thief of memory, cast in the guise of some sort of vaguely demonic presence. But before he can brush too close to the territory of cliché, Sheeran shifts emphasis and turns the song’s sentiment on its head. This is not a work about a man who was defeated by illness, but rather who lived a full life in spite of it. His grandfather, we are left in no doubt, was a family man who meant the world to those around him, and this is the message that Sheeran spends the most time conveying. Dementia, we hear, may have diminished his grandfather’s mental capacity, but it could not loosen the bonds of devotion which made him mean so much to the people who loved him right to the end of his life.
Sheeran effectively employs a juxtaposition of light and dark throughout the song, a motif which sees him contrasting funereal black with the brightness of the sun, of life, of the inner being. We hear of his grandmother’s regrets over her husband’s ailing memory, and then become acutely aware of a union of love which cannot be denied - not by dementia, or even by death. Given the nature of the topic, to say nothing of the circumstances of its composition, a degree of emotional rawness would seem inevitable. Yet this is not a song which is mawkish or laboured in the articulation of its subject matter. Sheeran manages to balance with great skill the heartache of loss with the celebration of life, reminding us that he seeks to rejoice in a unique life rather than reduce his loved one to a discussion of medical symptoms.
Afire Love is a song which challenges audiences to examine their attitudes towards dementia, and each other. While we come to know his grandfather through the lens of failing health, equally we are shown that this is only one part of the story, not all of it. This is a song which calls attention to the triumph of life over death, and of love over adversity. In equal parts touching and thought-provoking, Afire Love is a work which seems to have been composed precisely to subvert expectations, and Sheeran obviously wants his audience to know that in his view, dementia is something which impacts upon identity but should not inform identity. It may have changed his grandfather, but it has not changed his family’s love and support for him. And this, perhaps, is the song’s most memorable aspect: the emphasis that every life is a unique, that every person connects with - and impacts upon - those around them, and that in all events hope persists and should be nurtured.