“Autumn Variations,” Ed Sheeran’s seventh studio album released Sept. 29, came at exactly the right time. Even in Los Angeles, as October begins, fall can be felt in the chilly air and heard in the “la-la-la”s of “Gilmore Girls” reruns — and if Sheeran’s early-career albums, “5” and “Multiply,” showed his fans anything, it’s that the man is the king of autumn.
That’s why the album’s promise of fall-themed vulnerability disappoints. “Autumn Variations” lays it all bare, chronicling Sheeran’s seasonal melancholy and fear of being unloved and forgotten. But it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to see.
On “The Day I Was Born,” Sheeran complains about how none of his city friends showed up to celebrate his birthday, meaning he has to spend “another birthday alone.” “I hit ‘em up and I asked, ‘Are you comin’ over?’ / And all I got was a shrug and an ‘I don’t know,’” Sheeran sings.
Now, this is genuinely sad, and being stood up on your birthday sucks, but the song feels forcedly relatable. It’s hard to believe that Sheeran’s telling the truth — that no one, not even his wife, Cherry Seaborn, or bestie Taylor Swift, cares about his birthday.
Other songs, such as “Magical” and “Plastic Bag” on the stripped-back, predominantly acoustic album, feature too-simple melodic progressions that feel like an insult to his skilled, memorable songwriting on earlier tracks, like “The A Team” and “I See Fire.”
The album title came as a surprise from the singer-songwriter, whose last five albums were named after math symbols and numerals — a pattern that fans came to expect, wondering which symbol Sheeran would choose next. Sheeran’s “Subtract,” which came out May 5, was a predictably-named but unpredictably emotional and vulnerable album. Nevertheless, that complexity is glaringly missing from his latest release.
For a so-called departure from industry pressure, “Autumn Variations” — for which Sheeran isn’t releasing singles or music videos — feels like a cautious return to tried-and-true motifs and melodies. But maybe it’s a step back and a refusal to conform to an industry expecting innovation and novelty.
On some of the album’s tracks, including playlist-worthy “Blue” and “Page,” Sheeran recalls the warm acoustics of fall favorites like “Cold Coffee” and “Lego House,” adding heartwrenching reflections on self-hate, departed friends and lost hope.
On “Blue,” Sheeran sings, “Quietly stuck in the moment, I’m not over you / I’ll be forever lonely.” He alternates between blaming others for leaving and himself for stewing in his misery, pointing the finger internally on “That’s On Me”: “Maybe I’ll never find my smile / But who’s to blame? Well, that’s on me.”
“Punchline” delightfully recalls his past discography, where Sheeran’s crooning about missteps and regrets in the chorus reminds of his throaty screams on “Give Me Love.” The layered voices on “Punchline” and “Magical” mixing with soft acoustic guitar have the same cozy, warm quality as 2011’s “Autumn Leaves.”
The album’s standout song that seems to be on its way to hit status is “American Town,” which tells of a spontaneous trip Sheeran takes with an English lover into “the life we saw in ‘Friends.’” Sheeran teased the song in a Twitter video, in which he serenades Courteney Cox — who played Monica Geller on “Friends” — in the kitchen. The song is a hopeful, upbeat ditty with sharp, atmospheric lyrics. It’s outpacing the album’s other tracks in streams by a long shot, garnering nearly 3 million listens on Spotify as of the date of publication.
On “Autumn Variations,” Sheeran evokes a tainted nostalgia for fall masterpieces from his past. The result is, at times, magical — and at others, an uncomfortable dud.