Inspired by the divisive composer Edward Elgar, Sheeran goes into his mellow, misty-eyed mode for his seventh studio album


Ed Sheeran may have taken a break from the mathematical symbol titles, but fans can be reassured his musical formula remains the same on Autumn Variations. The affable “bloke in a T-shirt” sticks to the busker’n’beats style that’s made him the best-selling male artist of the past decade. That said, as its end-of-year title implies, Autumn Variations finds Sheeran in mellow, misty-eyed mode, rather than the cringier dancefloor zone of Collaborations.

Sheeran’s seventh studio album was, he says, loosely inspired by the composer Edward Elgar, whose 1899 Enigma Variations – containing his famous “Nimrod” melody – featured 14 sketches of his wife, friends and colleagues. Rather like Sheeran, Elgar was treated sniffily by critics in the 1920s. They regarded his decorative themes and emotional restraint as stuffily Victorian and jingoistic, particularly when set against the modernist innovations of younger composers tackling life’s bleak realities in the wake of the First World War. In 1932, conductor Constant Lambert lamented “an almost intolerable air of smugness, self-assurance and autocratic benevolence” in Elgar’s music.

Modern critics can feel the same about Sheeran, who freely confesses to writing “cheesy” ballads because they hit home. They both came from relatively humble beginnings, later rising to become part of “the establishment” and all its pomp and circumstance, and both explore their tender, youthful connections to the English landscape. Elgar preferred the north to the bustling city of London, while Sheeran harks back to Framlingham’s ruined “Castle on the Hill” and his pals living “normal” lives. The best song on Autumn Variations is “England”, on which a stuttering electric guitar gives a heartfelt pulse to his tribute to a country of “grass and pebbles”, and “pubs with flags” offering “flexible working hours”.

“I find this country of mine gets a bad reputation for being cold and grey,” sings Sheeran, with no pretensions at poetry, before noting that if you take a walk here you’ll “feel fine”. You don’t come to this artist for insight, but for normality and mateyness. On “England”, Sheeran all but hands you a coat and a fiver for the chippy.

<p>Ed Sheeran in artwork for his new album, ‘Autumn Variations’, by Annie Leibovitz</p>

Ed Sheeran in artwork for his new album, ‘Autumn Variations’, by Annie Leibovitz

While Elgar refused to explain the “enigma” at the heart of his variations, warning “its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed”, Sheeran has been more open about his recent emotional struggles. Interviewed by Rolling Stone earlier this year, he spoke of the depression that has dogged him since primary school and how it had been triggered by his wife’s recent health scare and the sudden death of his best friend, Jamal Edwards.

That depression – expressed with a shrugging British “it is what it is” kind of acceptance – wanders through the whole album. Sheeran’s reliably simple-slick hooks are delivered in muted style with shaggier lyrics shuffling over the top. “Overthinking and trouble sleeping/ All purpose gone and don’t have a reason,” he sings over the prettily pinged guitar pattern of “Plastic Bag”. “When love finds me, I’m too numb to feel it/ Woe is me but I don’t care either.”

Although Sheeran has probably never experienced the nine-five, he dials into the average listener who’s “burning days”, living for the strobe lights of the weekend. He describes losing hope on the slightly grungey “Punchline” and dragging his feet to the driving drumbeat of “Amazing”, whose chorus runs: “I wish I could feel amazing/ But this is all I can feel today.”

A piano and fiddle join his sleepy strum for the casually countrified “When Will I Be Alright”. The sorrow and stasis are balanced by the genuine (still soppy) romance of tracks such as “Magical”, on which low synths and finger-snap of a beat are tailor made for wedding dances. (His songs “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud” remained the UK’s most popular choice of nuptial first dances as of 2022.) The skip-along, hammer-on tune of “Spring” recalls the Postal Service’s hit “Such Great Heights”, as Sheeran captures a life watching recommended TV shows that “don’t get good until the end” and failed attempts at sober months – all the while, he clings to the hope of warmer feelings on the horizon. There’s a perky bounce to the programmed drum of “Midnight”, which also sees the singer reminding himself that “even the worst days of my life will always end at midnight in your arms”.

Elgar once said: “An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white – all over white – and somebody will say what exquisite taste. You know in your own mind, in your own soul – that it is not taste at all – that is the want of taste, that is mere evasion. English music is white and evades everything.” Sometimes Sheeran’s tidy tunes and high street platitudes do feel like white paint. “La-la-laaa-layyy” he noodles on “The Day I Was Born”. Other times, his relatable warmth and sincerity snag you by the sleeve like a plastic bag. There’s no standout tune on here to match Elgar’s “Nimrod”, of course, but there’s enough soupy seasonal sentimentality to fill the Royal Albert Hall.