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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: Ed Sheeran’s New Album ‘Autumn Variations’ is a Triumph Teeming with Vulnerability and Raw Emotion

The pop star’s newest album about his fourteen closest relationships contains a wide range of human experience and emotion.

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Ed Sheeran’s newest album, “Autumn Variations” came out on Sept. 29 after minimal marketing — there were no singles or music videos released prior to its release. Though seasonally appropriate, the title of the album may pique the interest of devoted Sheeran fans because it is not named after a mathematical symbol like his previous albums. Instead, the album — from its title to its feel — is truly unique and vastly different from Sheeran’s previous releases. Overall, “Autumn Variations” is a triumph: an incredibly creative and intricate collection of music. The album’s sincerity, storytelling and ability to depict the complexity of the human condition via its meaningful lyrics is unparalleled in today’s musical landscape. 

According to AP News music journalist Maria Sherman, the inspiration for “Autumn Variations” stemmed from Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” “Enigma Variations” is a collection of musical works in which each variation is said to represent a friend. Similarly, Sheeran employs a similar structure on “Autumn Variations.” In a CBS Morning exclusive interview, Sheeran described his newest release as “fourteen stories about my friends” featuring an “autumnal feeling.” Because Sheeran’s friends were the album’s inspiration, it follows that the album is full of vulnerability and intimacy. 

Apart from the album’s unique inspiration, “Autumn Variations” also represents a milestone for Sheeran: it’s his first album released from his own record label, Gingerbread Man Records. In the same CBS interview, Sheeran revealed that the absence of a third-party record label had freed him from worrying about the album’s ratings. Instead, Sheeran’s album is chiefly centered around the stories, emotions and experiences of his closest relationships. 

“Autumn Variations” begins with a song entitled “Magical.” Not only is this song one of Sheeran’s personal favorites on the album, but he also wanted this song to sound and feel like “fairy dust.” And so it does indeed. The song features beautiful harmonies that meld acoustic simplicity with complex, ethereal sections. Harkening much-loved themes from previous songs such as “Photograph” from “x” and “Lego House” from “+”, the song transports listeners to an autumnal fantasy. “Magical” captures that moment when the leaves first begin to change to create feelings of joy and optimism. 

The album also features songs such as “England” and “American Town.” These songs explore an upbeat ode to love combined with the satisfaction of living in a familiar place. These songs allow listeners to experience how aspirations, emotions, and dreams can be shaped by the place where meaningful events occur. Musically, these songs contain fast-paced strumming patterns, causing the listener to feel as if something is beginning anew. 

But the album also contains themes of anxiety, darkness and grief. In songs such as “Amazing,” the lyrics contrast the joyfulness of the aforementioned songs by acknowledging the importance of recognizing how people really feel — even if it isn’t always joyful. Sheeran sings “yeah I’m tryna feel amazing, but I can’t get out of my way and yeah, wish I could feel amazing. But this is all that I can feel today.” In the interview with CBS, Sheeran explains that “some of [his] favorite songs are these sort of anthemic feel-good numbers that are really not feel-good at all.” This is the style of “Amazing”: it has an upbeat, feel-good chorus, yet lyrics that convey sadness and anxiety. In this way, Sheeran utilizes a convention in pop music to highlight the reality of the subject’s emotions. In other songs, such as “Blue,” “Plastic Bag” and “When Will I Be Alright,” Sheeran recounts stories of heartbreak, loss, and frustration. The lyrics in these songs are bleak, but they are also a testament to the sincerity of emotion expressed in the album.

Though the album contains songs depicting the extremes of human emotion, it contrasts these extremes by expressing the importance of optimism, even in hard times. This message is best encapsulated by the song “Spring,” which relates the changing of seasons to the hope of overcoming hardships. Sheeran sings “we can’t let winter win, that’s why I’m holding out for spring/. Oh, what a state we’re in, I’ll keep holding out for spring.” 

The album concludes with an intimate love song, entitled “Head > Heels” featuring similar harmonies and imagery as in “Magical.” In turn, the repetition of these elements from the beginning of the album creates a satisfying sense of closure. The album as a whole, especially when listened to from beginning to end, is complex, expansive in its range and artfully unified. 

Just like the seasons Sheeran utilizes as the structure of the album, the mood of the album is dynamic. It shifts from joy, plunges into the depths of darkness, and finally re-emerges into a similar joy felt in the beginning. This brilliant construction of the album’s elements draws a beautiful parallel between the volatility of human emotion and the cyclical, ever-changing nature of seasons. 

Though I admire the complexity of Sheeran’s all-time great albums like “÷” or “-”, I share the opinion of Sherman from AP News when she describes “Autumn Variations” as “some of the best songs of Sheeran’s career.” The lyrics in Sheeran’s newest songs reflect some of his most intimate relationships with ingenious simplicity. Using the structure of seasons, the album tells the story of the human condition: love, loss, heartache, pain, joy, anxiety and sorrow. Even apart from the album’s piercing lyrics, “Autumn Variations” showcases Sheeran’s mastery of musical theory and structure. Specifically, it features Sheeran’s mastery of the guitar, which has been demonstrated time and time again in his previous albums. 

However, this adoration is not shared by all. The Irish Times referred to the album as being “bogged down by cliched lyrics and unimaginative melodies.” Or to put it as bluntly as stated in The Guardian: “‘Autumn Variations’ is devoid of wit.” Although my own opinion directly opposes these critiques, they are valid in that they draw attention to the fact that Sheeran’s newest songs sound quite distinct from other new releases in pop music.  For example, many of Sheeran’s new songs lack the components of his top hits like “Shape of You” and “Bad Habits.”

Regardless, Ed Sheeran’s new album “Autumn Variations” is some of my favorite new music from the accomplished artist. The album’s complexity conveyed through intentional, distilled, imagetic lyrics is a testament to Sheeran’s ability to use musical expression to create something that is fundamentally human.

Rating: ★