For Anyone Who Knows Life After Grief, Ed Sheeran's Autumn Variation Shows Are A Joyful Celebration

The Last Days Of Autumn showed Sheeran has turned over a new leaf.
Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Mark Surridge

It was fitting there was a giant broken heart with a plaster hanging just behind Ed Sheeran as he played his Last Days of Autumn gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in London this weekend.

Sheeran performed just two evenings dedicated to playing his latest album – which was released on his own record label – from start to finish. These were the only two nights he’ll ever do this, he explained to the crowd. It was his way of keeping the album inspired by Elgar’s Enigma Variations and co-created with Aaron Dessner ‘special’.

And ‘special’ it was.

If you’ve been keeping up with Sheeran’s output this year – aside from hot sauces, guitars and serving up hot dogs – you’ll know he released two albums in four months, as well as a personal and revealing docuseries called The Sum Of It All.

During the promotion cycle for his album Subtract, Sheeran played several gigs where he performed the entire album in full – and in those shows, we see a grief and stress-ridden Sheeran break down in tears several times on stage, as he tries to explain the meaning of these intensely personal songs.

At one such moment captured in his docuseries, his wife Cherry Seaborn looks on worriedly, saying “I’ve never seen him cry on stage,” adding that he “hasn’t had the time to process and be at peace with his thoughts”.

It is rare to see such a real-time look at grief, and watching Sheeran try to hold back the tide while in public and on stage feels brutally familiar for anyone who has experienced the clusterfuck that is the grieving process. Fan or not, those moments are heartbreaking, and they’re as uncomfortable to watch as they are important.

So, for many of us huddled in the Royal Albert Hall this weekend, our most recent memories of seeing Sheeran standing in a theatre and playing an entire album back-to-back are ones of sadness and vulnerability.

Which is why the giant broken heart with a plaster – illustrated by his friend Scarlett Curtis – felt like the perfect symbol for Sheeran’s weekend performances of Autumn Variations.

Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Mark Surridge

Clearly having had more time ‘at peace with his thoughts’ – Sheeran appeared joyful, processed. And – to roll with the autumnal theme here – he looked, literally, as if he had turned over a new leaf.

Bouncing on stage to open the show with the first track of Autumn Variations, Magical, Sheeran then stopped between each song to give a bit of backstory – including using the phrase ‘getting shit-canned’ to describe how Brits deal with both the dwindling light and warmth of late autumn.

It was interesting to note how, when speaking to the audience, he can now reference the period of his life that was met with grief and anxiety as just ‘Subtract’ or ‘what was going on when I wrote that album’ without having to spell it out.

Spelling it out, when somebody you love has just died or you’re going through a period of extreme stress, can be exhausting. Like having a wound reopened without warning – an unexpected retraumatisation.

There are plenty of times it can feel as though it would be infinitely easier if everyone just knew – and Subtract is now that reference for Sheeran. You can still feel the weight of it – it’s part of Autumn Variations’ story – but it no longer feels like he is literally the vessel referenced in Boat, no longer is he being battered by unrelenting waves of grief and uncertainty.

Both musically and in his performances, Sheeran seems freed by the creative outlet that working with Aaron Dessner and having his own record label having afforded him. Subtract and Autumn Variations feel like Sheeran’s equivalent to Folklore and Evermore, with Dessner’s evocative use of strings and ‘soundscapes’ being the common thread between them.

A little bit country at moments, and a bit 90s at others, Sheeran and Autumn Variations felt truly at home in the iconic Royal Albert Hall.

Sheeran threw the crowd a little treat at the end of his Variations set, giving us a ‘million miles an hour’ whistle-stop tour of his big hits for being good girls and boys and sitting through this new album of his that he knows we’re ‘not as familiar with’.

Were we thrilled to stretch our legs and have a bit of a wiggle to Shape Of You after an hour of sitting? Of course. And I will never say no to watching Sheeran set up a song on his loop pedal or skip around stage belting out Shivers.

But this second act of the night seemed to reveal that he was perhaps a bit self-conscious about having us all in a room and not giving us what is essentially The Mathematical Eras Tour (Ed’s Version) – as if we were all locked in this hall against our will and force-fed a bizarre concept album. Far from a Ken staring uncomfortably into our eyes and singing at us for three hours – we were given a wholesome delivery of a wholesome album.

Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Ed Sheeran performs at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 November 2023
Mark Surridge

To me, seeing Sheeran live is a privilege – although I realise the many boyfriends who were no doubt dragged along may feel differently. To go from blasting out stadium shows ‘in the round’ with pyrotechnics, a rotating stage and a mega setlist – to then meaningfully fill and captivate an audience at the Royal Albert Hall with an album like Autumn Variations, and then end the night singing acapella, without any amplification – is skilful and impressive. To do it all with a mending heart makes it even more special.

That’s the thing the cool kids still don’t seem to want want to admit – Ed Sheeran is a special artist. And The Last Days of Autumn performances felt like a true celebration of a new era of Sheeran’s career and artistry, where he can create music, for both job and hobby, and have if feel lighter and freer – and perhaps even a little bit magical.

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