Ed Sheeran’s ‘Autumn Variations’ provides fall flavor and not much else
Ashley Hedge | Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Ed Sheeran’s new fall album, “Autumn Variations,” is possibly his most critiqued yet. The English singer announced his seventh album, the first released under his own label, Gingerbread Man Records, in late August on social media. He revealed that it was the product of the time spent producing his previous album, “-” (“Subtract”), released in May of this year, saying he and producer Aaron Dessner, “wrote and recorded non-stop and this album was born out of that partnership.”
However, as much as his newest album was born from his “Subtract” sessions with Dessner, the two albums could not be more different. “Subtract“ was a melancholic expression of the traumatic life events Sheeran experienced within the short span of a few months, which included the unexpected death of his best friend, discovering his wife had a tumor whilst pregnant with the couple’s second child, and his own experiences with depression and anxiety.
“Autumn Variations” steps back from Sheeran’s own life experience. When announcing the album, Sheeran explained the premise upon which it was grounded: “When I learned about my friend’s different situations, I wrote songs, some from their perspectives, some from mine, to capture how they and I viewed the world at the same time.”
But one aspect of the album Sheeran emphasized the most was that it was recorded for the fans. “This is an album purely for you, the fans,” Sheeran posted on the album’s release day. “I just want you guys to have a soundtrack for autumn/fall that feels like a warm hug.”
The album itself reflects these intentions. There is no show-stopping single or standout ballad that we usually see on Sheeran’s studio albums; after a first, and even a second listen, there was nothing outwardly remarkable to be found.
However, the album’s relatively basic nature makes it no less enjoyable. Reflecting the various moments that Sheeran set out to capture, “the highs of falling in love and new friendships among lows of heartbreak, depression, loneliness, and confusion,” the album very much encapsulates the “warm hug” feeling the 4-time Grammy Award winner envisioned.
This feeling is not a result of a purely uplifting message carried throughout the album; it is undoubtedly marred by darker undertones. Songs like “Page”, which asks, “Do I look like a monster underneath all my skin? / I wanna cut all this open ‘til I’m feeling something,” reveal the weight of the more despondent side of the album.
Rather, the singer-songwriter creates an environment that invites listeners to accept the presence of darkness and remain hopeful in spite of it. This dualism is reflected perfectly in the upbeat synth notes and lyrics of “Midnight”, “‘Cause even the worst days of my life will always end / At midnight in your arms.” The fast-tempo optimism of “Midnight” is paralleled by a quieter message of hope in “Spring” and underscored by the acoustic production of the track: “We can’t let winter win / That’s why I’m holding out for spring.”
“Autumn Variations” concludes with a coalescence of these two notions in “Head > Heels”: “We escaped the fire and planted roots when there was nothing left, how beautiful we blend.”
While the album has had varying degrees of success among critics, its reaching #1 on the charts might suggest the ending of an era where music is made to win awards. “Autumn Variations,” no matter its sonic strengths and weaknesses, is an exhibit of what might happen when we give writers and producers the chance to create simply for the act itself, as well as a reminder of the universality of music and the insurmountable connection between an artist and their audience.