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Seven albums is a lot of albums. At seven albums, you can start to classify: Here are your biggest hits, these are blemishes on the record, and these others hardly made a splash. At seven albums, an artist has written, recorded, produced, released, and toured so much it must become routine. With seven albums released, hundreds of songs written, and a decade on top of the pop music industry, does an artist begin to lose their touch?
We know Ed Sheeran is a good songwriter — or at least, Ed Sheeran has written good songs. “The A-Team” remains one of the most artfully-written songs to come out of the 2010s. “Multiply” had its fair share of beauty as well (“Photograph” springs to mind), and “Divide” lays claim to Sheeran’s guaranteed-to-make-you-cry ballad “Supermarket Flowers.” So where did all of this go when Sheeran wrote the songs for “Autumn Variations”?
Take a look at “Magical,” the first song on the album, a decidedly soft love song. Sheeran told CBS Mornings that he wanted the song to sound like “fairy dust,” but fairy dust flies and sparkles and catches your eye and is generally interesting. This song is not. It’s a song of three verses, with eight lines each, four of which are Sheeran singing “Is this how it feels to be in love? / This is magical, this is magical.” It might be true, but it’s an uninspired lyric, and it’s 50% of the song. Pair that with a never-changing acoustic guitar riff and a sleep-inducing soft drumbeat, and the song truly falls flat as an opener.
“England,” the next song on the album, is even worse. Of all the things we may have expected from Sheeran, a song inexplicably romanticizing England was certainly not one of them, especially with lines like “Beware of the rip tide / Broken glass and train lines.” What? It’s almost funny that this is what Sheeran uses to sing the praises of his country. Pair that with the song’s incessant reversed guitar riff that feels like it's tunneling into your brain, and your unbearable concoction is complete.
Throughout “Autumn Variations,” Sheeran explores places his music has not delved deeply into before, with mental health issues being at the forefront of the record. As an artist and as a person, this is undoubtedly a brave step to take. Where it falls flat in this album, though, is how the issues and Sheeran’s struggles are presented.
Take the song “Amazing,” for example, with lines like “I drown my silence, embarrassed by the shame of it / But all it seems to do is magnify the pain.” These are not light words, in fact they speak to serious issues that are new to Sheeran’s discography. And yet, Sheeran and his producer choose to pair this with a fun piano chord loop and a bouncy beat. Sometimes a contrast between lyrical and musical presentation works, but here the happy-go-lucky music only serves to dampen the theme of the song. Especially when added with the overly simple chorus of “Yeah, I’m tryna feel amazing / Yeah but I can’t get out of my way.” The song, and others on the album like it, suffer from a feeling of disingenuous detachment between their sound and subject matter, almost as if they are making light of their serious themes in hopes of creating something catchy.
Not all hope is lost, however. The song “Punchline,” probably the best song on the album, gives some promise for Sheeran’s future. The somber guitar tone finally matches the heavy content of the song, which all leads to the spectacular ending. With a song-wide build up reminiscent of “I See Fire,” Sheeran leaves behind any expectations for musical rules he is bound to. The end of “Punchline” involves powerful electric guitar, thundering drums, and some stellar vocals from the singer himself — it’s almost as if he takes the loop-based build ups that listeners are used to and morphs them into a new style while retaining all of their power.
Sheeran deserves credit for many things on this album: It’s his first independent release on his own label, it delves into mental health struggles that he hasn’t expressed before, and he put little to no marketing into it, giving the feeling that he really just wanted to release music for its own sake. But in the end, “Autumn Variations,” with its clip art-looking album cover, is somewhat of a clip art sounding album. There’s little new, and little memorable. All Sheerios can hope for is that their man takes the few nuggets of promise that are still around, and explores them deeper for any future projects.
—Staff writer Alessandro M. M. Drake can be reached at email@example.com.
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