Album Review: Ed Sheeran - 'Autumn Variations'

29 September 2023 | 1:16 pm | David James Young

"'Autumn Variations' presents itself as a pleasantry – not a necessity."

'Autumn Variations' - Ed Sheeran

'Autumn Variations' - Ed Sheeran (Supplied)

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In 2020, Taylor Swift unexpectedly followed up one of her most maximal, blatant pop efforts with a subdued and largely acoustic effort forged with even more unexpected guidance from The National guitarist Aaron Dessner.

That, in turn, was followed by a sister album a matter of months later that continued the sonic sphere of its predecessor.

In 2023, Ed Sheeran unexpectedly followed up one of his most maximal, blatant pop efforts with a subdued and largely acoustic effort forged with even more unexpected guidance from Th... alright, you see where this is all going. Look, no one is saying Sheeran has been copying the homework of his longtime friend and collaborator with the release of – (Subtract) in May and now Autumn Variations at the end of September. It's certainly being thought, though – not “Marvin Gaye's estate taking you to court” similar, but similar enough to notice.

Like any good homework copier, Mr. Sheeran has changed it just enough so as to not raise the eyebrows of the teacher. Said change, however, isn't necessarily a good one for him. While Swift's folklore and evermore albums served as an elongated and much-needed exhale from the most famous person in the world, finding some beauty in stillness amid pandemic quiet, Sheeran's shift into restrained balladry has unfortunately shown off the gaping flaws in his writing and made him even more susceptible to entirely valid criticism.

Granted, Autumn Variations – true to its title – does a bit more spatial versatility in its arrangement when contrasted to its sister album. Sheeran and Dessner have left the proverbial log cabin of Subtract and made their way out into the woods – some subtle programming here, the swell of a string quartet there, a banjo tucked away in the corner by a campfire.

Sheeran channels the spirit of Dessner's old friend Justin Vernon on the falsetto-laden Blue in a moment of tranquillity, while Page is a pleasant rumination with an insistent acoustic strum guiding its path.

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Even in these moments, however, Autumn Variations presents itself as a pleasantry – not a necessity.

It largely ambles along agreeably, with Sheeran making plain observations like “It's a brand new day / And this is England” or “This year flew by without a word”.

After the grief and personal upheaval the guy has been through, you feel like he'd at least have a little more to say on the matter. Even on a song like When Will I Be Alright, where a lyric like “I’ve been up all night / Thinking about dying” should hit with a devastating thud, it's veiled in a cutesy major-key melody. It's a lullaby that should be a longing cry.

Nothing on Autumn Variations gets quite as bad as Subtract's awkward outlier Eyes Closed (though the half-rapped That's On Me gets pretty close).

By that same token, though, nothing gets quite as good as Subtract's stunned-silence opener of Boat either. That's just it: Sheeran is entirely capable of creating music that stands out, from bedroom intimacy to stadium grandeur. The thing that's gotten Ed Sheeran the longevity he has truly comes down to people loving him or hating him – because let's face it, both are interesting. They're intriguing. They make you question why it's so.

To exist in the simultaneous reality of playing to 100,000 people a night and still routinely be called one of the worst artists on the planet on a near-daily basis is a curious contrast. Autumn Variations doesn't give you a reason to love or hate Sheeran the same way previous albums have, though – which may well be its biggest offense.

Ed Sheeran – the diamond-certified, stadium-performing, generational talent – is just... there. He's an extra in the biopic of his own life, trying to not draw attention to himself but creating a Streisand effect of sorts in doing so. You notice Autumn Variations almost purely for its lack of notability.

It's obvious, by this point, that there's been a communication breakdown between what Sheeran and Dessner originally intended and what they've ended up executing. The clear intent of Subtract and Autumn Variations is to be so quiet and pensive that they draw listeners in so that they may pay full attention and listen clearly – jaws agape at seeing Mr. Shape of You go back to his roots the same way jaws dropped at Ms. Look What You Made Me Do sitting at the piano once again.

In a post-lockdown landscape, however, this kind of stunt can't be heard over highway traffic. Swift is comfortably back in the stadiums for the foreseeable future, and Dessner can quickly scurry back to The National – who've also had a two-album run in 2023 – whenever he pleases.

As for Sheeran? He has to think very carefully about his next move, so he's not totaled by an oncoming truck mistaking him for an autumn leaf shivering in the wind.