Released on Sept. 29, Ed Sheeran’s album “Autumn Variations” was perfectly timed with the first organic chemistry exam of the fall semester. With the leaves beginning to turn, midterms on the horizon, and an exam around the corner, I shut myself in one of Princeton’s many towers to immerse myself in molecular and musical resonance.
“Autumn Variations” is Sheeran’s first album coming out of a 12-year “mathematics” series, which started with his debut album “+” (2011) and concluded with his fifth studio album, “-” (2023). Over the past decade, Sheeran’s music has evolved from rap verses to romantic ballads to pop, with timeless fan favorites like “Shape of You” and “Perfect” as well as more recent hits like “Shivers.”
In his promotion of the album, Sheeran noted that “Autumn Variations” was written at around the same time as his last mathematics album “-” — an album that got me through freshman finals and soon became the sound of summer. The album’s mature themes of grief, acceptance, and appreciation for life stand out in a music industry that commonly turns out songs about love and heartbreak.
Beyond that, “-” showcased Sheeran’s strengths as an artist. His musicality shines through in his singable ballad choruses, like that of “Eyes Closed,” which soars higher in range than his sometimes repetitive mid-range verses. He keeps the listener on their toes with his musical bridges, which sometimes include unexpected chord changes like in “Dusty” or catchy rhythmic meters like in “Toughest.”
Yet if “-” and “Autumn Variations” are twin albums, they’re certainly not identical twins — and “Autumn Variations” is by far the weaker of the two. My hopes for a musical masterpiece, while ambitious, were immediately dashed when I listened to his first track, “Magical,” which suffered the affliction of Repetitive Mid-Range Verses. The opening lyrics stay on the same pitch (G4) for a whopping 11 notes before changing pitch. For a song about the magic of falling in love, it felt underwhelming, and in the scope of the album, there were certainly far better verses to open with.
The selling point of “Magical,” however, is its chorus, which thrums with immersive instrumentation that sounds phenomenal on headphones. The lyrics of his chorus, “Is this how it feels / to be in love?” are shadowed by calming harmony. With a song like this, I’m conflicted — is the “magical” chorus worth the experience of muddling through the monotonous verses?
The following tracks fall into a similar pattern: weighing repetition against flashes of musicality. Track 3, “Amazing,” earns my vote for the most repetitive song on the album. Yet the track directly after it, “Plastic Bag,” has one of my favorite choruses of the album. Like a pop of citrus amid the salad of the surrounding tracks, its instrumental variety and chord progression reminded me of why I loved Sheeran’s music. Similarly, the bridge of Track 6, “American Town”, had me humming along with its melody and lyrics: “And when our eyes are closed together, I can’t explain / How the scent of your perfume takes me to a higher place.”
Despite this, I found that there wasn’t a single standout song. If I could combine the verse of “Page” with the chorus of “Plastic Bag” and the bridge of “American Town,” perhaps I’d be able to Frankenstein a single out of the album. But as it stands, the album doesn’t seem to hold up to the quality of Sheeran’s best work.
Then again, it may be unfair to compare a single album to all of Sheeran’s “mathematics” series, a body that has its champions in some of his timeless top hits. Sheeran is still an immensely talented artist. “Autumn Variations” may just be him working through his transition to standalone albums, or him weaving together musical ideas left over after “-”.
Indeed, part of what sets Sheeran’s two most recent albums apart is their creative processes. “-” came from an emotional whirlwind as the singer faced the unexpected death of his best friend, music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards, and the cancer diagnosis of his then-pregnant wife. “-” is music that wasn’t planned in advance, but rather brought on by necessity — as Sheeran said in an interview with Sirius XM, it just “happened.” Contrary to its cheerful yellow album cover, the music of “-” comes out in dark, vivid colors; it hits in the feels and strikes all the emotional chords.
“Autumn Variations,” on the other hand, takes on a more light, casual tone with its doodled cover design. True to its title, the album is a study on variations: its 14 songs range in emotions, from the thrill of budding romance in “American Town” to the bitter depths of “That’s on Me.” “Autumn Variations” may not have the heart of “-”, but it captures the variety of life like the many colors of autumn.
The album notably has more explicit tracks than I was accustomed to, as Sheeran brings out all the grittiness of life. In fact, even in instances when the musicality of his verses disappoints, the story told by his lyrics pulls through. Thus, while I found the richness of its musicality sometimes lacking, “Autumn Variations” is still an album that I enjoyed listening to as a fall study vibes playlist, and it’s certainly an album that grew on me.
A testament to this is Track 7, “That’s on Me.” On my first listen, its rap-like verses elicited an instant and strong distaste, and I nearly skipped the song entirely. Yet I soon found that its chorus was an inescapable earworm:
“This is not the end of our lives
This is just a bump in the ride
And I know that it’ll be alright
If it’s not, then we’re f*cked, aren’t we?”
Perhaps fittingly, this chorus ran on repeat in my head throughout the entirety of the organic chemistry exam. All things considered, it’s not a bad choice. Sheeran’s brutal optimism might just be what we all need to face the fall midterms season at Princeton.
Jessica Wang is a member of the Class of 2026 and a staff writer for the Prospect at the 'Prince.' She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.