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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Ed Sheeran’s seventh studio album is an ode to mediocrity

‘Autumn Variations’ lacks any true reinvention.

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Ed Sheeran is pictured.

Ed Sheeran’s newest album, “Autumn Variations” (2023), is nothing special. In fact, the title is apt, since the album is just variations of his previous works (which he happens to be releasing in autumn) but without much panache and experimentation. That may have been Sheeran’s goal, but it doesn’t negate the album’s overall quality.

Ed Sheeran has always been a hitmaker. From the smashing success of “Shape of You”(2017) to the omnipresence of “Bad Habits” (2021) to the ubiquitous wedding song “Thinking Out Loud” (2014), Sheeran has never shied from the mainstream. In fact, he has defined the mainstream throughout the 2010s. 

He suddenly changed his approach with his last studio album, “-”(2023). “-” (pronounced “subtract”) was an emotional rollercoaster; his wife had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and one of his closest friends, Jamal Edwards, had just overdosed. His music reflected the turmoil in his life, and the lyrics were more revelatory than any of his previous work had been. “Eyes Closed” (2023) was released as the lead single and became a hit, but the album was clearly intended to be more about personal exploration than commercial success.

He took an even more directly noncommercial approach with “Autumn Variations,” completely eschewing leading singles or other traditional  promotion. He appears to have put out the album purely for the sake of putting out his music, without any commercial or artistic ambitions. It’s more of a concept album, coming across like a private collection of miscellaneous autumn favorites, rather than a fully produced album he wrote himself. Each song is devoted to someone he loves (except “England” which is, of course, dedicated to England). The overall impression of the album is that of a laid-back soundtrack that could easily be played as background music on a crisp morning — just uninteresting enough to be ambient.

None of the songs are especially distinctive, at least after a first listen. The album opens meekly with the song “Magical,” which Sheeran says is his favorite of the record.  The song is strongly reminiscent of “Run” (2021), a Taylor Swift song Sheeran collaborated on (also produced by Aaron Dessner). “Run” is a great song, but did the world really need another song like it? Probably not.

Everyone should brace themselves to have “Plastic Bag” enter their earworm repertoire. It’s clearly the lead single that would have been, with an upbeat tempo that gets old after about three listens. The lyrics, much like many of his other more recent songs, allude to his history with substance addiction and alcoholism. Despite this catchiness and hints of self-exploration, the song really doesn’t accomplish anything special.

The second half of the album is a bit more somber. “Spring” is a mournful yet hopeful song. Its lyrics continue to openly explore Sheeran’s addiction, much like the majority of the songs in this album: “I said I’d do a sober month / I failed, but tried and wrote this drunk.” It’s a pretty and simple song, but once again, it’s nothing particularly unique.

“When Will I Be Alright,” the best song on the album, is honest and slow. Most importantly, it incorporates a melancholy fiddle (which automatically makes any song better). The lyrics reflect his continuing uncertainty following loss and depression. The song certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a nice addition to Sheeran’s repertoire.

Though Sheeran has changed his approach to advertising, this album is in no way a case of an artist reinventing himself. It could just as easily have been called “Ed Sheeran’s Seventh Studio Album” as it can be “Autumn Variations.” It clearly incorporates all the styles that Ed Sheeran has tried out in the past, from folk to rap to pop, and is filled with simple yet catchy melodies. Some of the album’s songs are good, some are bad, most are mediocre and all are derivative. But there isn’t anything wrong with that; in fact, it seems to be Sheeran’s intention. If he continues to release albums of this variety, he will have the freedom to make the kind of music he likes, without the pressure of appealing to critics or billboards. Perhaps less deliberately commercial albums will allow Sheeran to avoid some of the pitfalls of fame, and transition peacefully from a popstar to a relic of the sound of the 2010s.

Summary Ed Sheeran’s newest album, “Autumn Variations” (2023), is nothing special.
3 Stars