Dropping his second album of the year in the midst of a record-breaking arena tour, despite that success in the live arena, Ed Sheeran’s popularity on the charts has waned a little bit with his recent forays into more stripped-back and somber material. With his last album, –, finding him linking up with The National’s Aaron Dessner with a couple other proven hitmakers in the mix, Autumn Variations finds Dessner’s name on every single track as Sheeran continues to open up a little more about some of the more unfortunate goings-on of his life recently and his struggles with depression. While a couple tracks here do make slight improvements on –, Sheeran optimizing Dessner’s folksy, fall-ready backdrops to drop the kind of sweeping and emotional melodies he’s so well-known for, for the most part Autumn Variations is just as bland and lifeless as most of Sheeran’s recent material. Snapping back into the songwriting formula that made him famous, he offers musings that are either surprisingly surface-level for the subject matter or verging on complete downer territory. We know he has the charm, but for the fourth album in a row, you really have to pick and choose to find it.
The opening track “Magical” has an appropriate title, because my first thoughts upon hearing it were that if we hadn’t received so much mediocre, reputation-affecting content from Sheeran as of late, to fresh ears the song might have a little bit of the same kind of early-career Sheeran magic as a track like “Thinking Out Loud” once did. The quiet acoustics turn into slowly swelling chords in the background, Sheeran nicely harmonizing with himself as he ponders, starry-eyed, “Is this how it feels to be in love? This is magical.” It’s always evident that Sheeran’s brand of earnestly tapping into a universal emotion with an everyman charm is his strongest attribute, and Dessner should get a lot of credit for the sparkling world the track exists in as well. Not as much credit should go to him for “England,” however, which has an incredibly bizarre instrumental of a computerized, obnoxiously twangy guitar tone rapidly cutting in and out. Fading in and out haphazardly throughout, it feels grossly computerized and misses the mark they were going for. Sheeran’s lyrics, a dedication to the beauty of his home country, are a little more detailed than usual, but his melody meanders aimlessly around a couple notes in the most uninteresting part of his baritone. “Amazing,” however, must be Sheeran’s best song in years – save for perhaps expanding the Dessner universe in his = collab with Taylor Swift. Speaking of Swift, the piano chords here have the same kind of folklore-esque touching warmth, and Sheeran brings an element of soul, rhythm and musicality that’s been so missing from his music lately to the verses. It feels like what would happen if a well-written pop tune like “cardigan” was more upbeat.
The track “Plastic Bag” takes listeners on a plunge into the rest of the album, which is essentially represented by one of the most successful artists in the world complaining too much over plucky and bright acoustic instrumentals. It’s great that Sheeran is using his music as an emotional outlet, but you’d think that the songwriter extraordinaire is supposed to elaborate on things in a more poetic, affecting or catchy way than just awkwardly cramming in something like “my friend died, it’s been years, still grieving” at the start of a verse. Otherwise, why would we want to give that kind of material any repeated listens? The driving percussion and the chorus of this one are certainly serviceable though, and this phenomenon gets worse later on. Ed quietly ponders a connection that slowly faded on “Blue,” saying that silence isn’t golden, it’s actually blue. The nasal falsetto that tanked quite a few tracks on the last one is thankfully used sparingly on this album, but it’s full-on here. With boring acoustic chords and not a ton to say, it transitions into the lead single, “American Town.” Picking the energy back up with the kind of upbeat, wordy, “Galway Girl”-style chorus that only someone like Sheeran is ever brave enough to attempt, you have to respect it a little bit despite clunkier lyrical references to Chinese food, Friends and dungarees as he introduces his partner to the USA. With “That’s on Me,” Sheeran pens some long, half-rapped verses about his techniques to self-sabotage and shy away from his own happiness, anchored by one of the most annoying choruses on the album that features a couple ill-advised jumps up to falsetto and a jarring F-bomb.
The track “Page” might be the album’s biggest downer – I can’t imagine what kind of person would want to listen to Sheeran’s boyish verse in the chorus talking about being “destined to be always lonely, a loser, pathetic” – with a vague reference to self-harm elsewhere – over an alternating two-note acoustic pattern. Without lyrical specificity, it’s not for anyone. For this listener at least, music is meant to get you through the day, not make you want to crawl back into bed. “Midnight” finds a highly digitized drum machine pattern kicking off the track as things start looking back up for Sheeran. He sometimes touches on these lyrical moments that are so simple that you wonder how you’ve never heard someone else say them, and closing the chorus with the positive note of “even the worst days of my life will always end,” toasting to a happy midnight moment with a romantic partner as the day switches over, is a nice touch. A track named “Spring” somehow makes it onto Autumn Variations next, as Sheeran looks to a season ahead when things might be better. His vocals are at a near whisper, barely forced out with a light, hopeful touch. It’s a quieter refuge in the album, and the swelling strings in the back do their job. Despite a melodically unfortunate bridge, it’s mostly Sheeran following his singer-songwriter formulae, doing what he knows works.
Asking the titular question over campfire-side acoustics, Sheeran repeatedly details his life stuck in a rut on “When Will I Be Alright.” As the falsetto returns alongside a singular violin, Sheeran’s sad-sack routine begins to get really tiresome at this point on the album. The routine reaches a truly comedic fever pitch on “The Day I Was Born,” as Sheeran delivers a jaunty, upbeat and celebratory-sounding tune complaining about nobody remembering his birthday and having to spend it alone. It feels bad to laugh when he has a song two tracks earlier called “Punchline,” where he laments that he’s become somewhat of one over the years, but he really makes it easy to become that way with tracks like these. The album ends with the quizzically titled “Head > Heels,” which might have been kind of fine if it was pronounced “Head Over Heels,” but it’s actually “Head Then Heels.” I thought Sheeran was the master of mathematical symbols, but he clearly has no idea what this one means. In any case, there’s been a lot of romantic turmoil for Sheeran across the album, but it all works out in the end on this one.
After listening to –, it became abundantly clear that what Sheeran likely needs the most of all is a break. Instead, he went on his biggest tour yet and dropped another album in the same year. The combination of succumbing to making the most palatable music he can and increasing his workflow when his life is at its most tumultuous isn’t going to get him back to where he was anytime soon.
Favourite Tracks: Amazing, Magical, American Town, Midnight
Least Favourite Track: When Will I Be Alright