Earlier this year, Ed Sheeran went on an Album Campaign. It was for ‘-’ (pronounced Subtract), the final entry into his ‘mathematical-themed’ series, the decade-long run of albums that included 2011 debut ‘+’ and 2017’s chart behemoth ‘÷’. He went at lengths to do something that he’d actively avoided previously, mining his personal life and explaining what was going on behind the scenes: his best friend, social media innovator Jamal Edwards, had passed suddenly, and his wife had a life-threatening health battle during pregnancy. It was weighty stuff, and resulted in material that NME said “feels like a warm hug from a friend”.
At the same time, he was bullish. Sheeran gave short shrift to music critics – sorry, Ed! – when he questioned the need for cultural criticism. “Why do you need to read a review?” he told Rolling Stone. Even so, his decision in working with The National’s Aaron Dessner, critical darling and Taylor Swift collaborator on 2020’s ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’, would have likely intrigued Sheeran if only to see how the music would be received.
‘Autumn Variations’, his second album in a matter of months, isn’t a flying start to this next phase of his catalogue. Inspired by Edward Elgar’s 1899 composition Enigma Variations, where the theme’s interpretations are influenced by his friends and peers, Sheeran gives the concept a pumpkin-spiced twist. He says in a statement that the arrival of falling leaves would frame the upheaval in his friends’ personal lives: breakups, breakdowns and, occasionally, cosy wins. The album’s artwork references some of the trivial changes that arrive with the autumn equinox, like “days getting shorter”, eating “lots of biscuits” and putting on “old coats”. It’s as subtle as a pungent cinnamon candle choking the room, getting drenched by a bus racing through a puddle, or… well, you get the idea.
The nuance and specificity of his last album’s songwriting is largely absent; instead ‘Autumn Variations’ is akin to aimlessly swiping through Instagram, blurry snaps of followers’ leafy happenings whizzing past in a distracted daze. ‘The Day I Was Born’ is told from the point of view of a narrator whose birthday drinks are ruined by no-shows: he gets “the same old excuses from every friend” and bemoans that “nobody cares this was the day I was born”. It would strike a chord if it didn’t come across as so petulant – he “gave his card to start a tab”, after all. Swipe. On ‘American Town’, which feels like a de facto sequel to Sheeran’s derided 2017 single ‘Galway Girl’, he sings that he and a rekindled “English girl” spend their nights getting “Chinese food in small white boxes, live a life we saw in Friends”. Swipe, swipe, swipe.
There’s signs, too, that Dessner’s signature sound – acoustic and malleable – is running out of steam: since 2020, there’s been lead production on two full Swift albums, Gracie Abrams’ recent debut and Sheeran’s ‘-’, alongside two National albums in the space of six months, all tempered in their sound. Where National frontman Matt Berninger’s booming baritone can mask the niftiest of guitar-picking, so much of ‘Autumn Variations’ gets lost in the wash: ‘Spring’, ‘Head > Heels’ and ‘Amazing’’s sonic footprint are so faint and unmemorable, its as if they’re barely there. Sheeran’s melodies – impeccable as always – remain a pleasing constant, however.
Frustratingly, these generic moments undercut some of the new ground Sheeran covers. The glitchy ‘England’ has shades of the glitchy soundscapes Dessner established on The National’s 2017 album ‘Sleep Well Beast’, as does ‘Plastic Bag’ and its repetitive, but effective drum beat. ‘Midnight’’s urgency is refreshing in its lo-fi feel, a hark back to Sheeran’s DIY beginnings, and the intensity of his vocal delivery ‘That’s On Me’ is elevated smartly by the speedy sonic set-up.
Even so, ‘Autumn Variations’ provides a limp ending to this unique and curious creative cycle for Sheeran and Dessner, one that took both artists out of their comfort zone. Spring and Summer can’t come soon enough.