After my New York Giants got stomped by the San Fransisco 49ers, I needed some levity. Luckily, Ed Sheeran played a set for the premiere of Amazon Music Live series.
This set could have been anything. Given that this was happening after a football broadcast, I wasn't expecting Sheeran to pull out the sappiness of Subtract or the acoustic sounds I expect Autumn Variations to feature.
However, the “Eyes Closed” singer found a way to balance those. Sheeran balanced the hits, new songs, and everything in between across his one-hour set.
It surely helps that Sheeran seemed to be in top shape. Coming off a record-breaking show at Levi's Stadium and opening for John Mayer, a phoned-in performance would have been understandable. Evidently, that's not how he operates. His voice was in good form — unlike that recent SiriusXM concert where he sounded a bit tired — and had the backing of his stellar band.
A new sound for an old song
Kicking off the set was a tried and true hit, “Castle on the Hill.” As one of Sheeran's most iconic and energetic songs, this was a brilliant choice. But there was a subtle difference that separates this performance from others. Sheeran came out with his backing band, playing the song in its Divide studio version arrangement.
I've always lamented that “Castle on the Hill,” to have its full impact, should be played full band. I know that his loop pedal is part of his gimmick, but having the full band play with him drove home the anthemic qualities of the song. Aside from having the electric guitar and bass driving the song, the backing vocals allow Sheeran to get a rest on the high notes and belting heard on the album version.
A similar compliment should be paid to Sheeran and his band's rendition of “Thinking Out Loud.” Sure, they do play a full band arrangement during his “Mathematics” tour shows, but the solo is missing. Sheeran usually opts to ask the crowd to vocalize back to him.
For loop pedal fans, he'd use it on most of the solo performances. It's a great gimmick, or part of his act. Sheeran's not the first man to use a loop pedal, but his songs reconstructed right before your eyes is a treat.
Changing seasons to Autumn Variations tracks
After a few of his biggest hits — “Shivers,” “The A-Team,” and “Eyes Closed” — Sheeran finally went into his Autumn Variations tracks. Now, unlike some artists, Sheeran remains bashful about the new ones. Before the final track he played from the new album, he practically pleaded with the audience as if he was begging them to bear with him.
But Sheeran's recent work has been outstanding, which should rid him of this insecurity. Even after he finished the Autumn Variations suite of the set, he emphasized that he has “zero expectations” for the album. Some of this may be an artist facetiously acting as if he has no faith in his new material. Subtract is arguably his best work as a singer-songwriter.
Unlike artists like Taylor Swift, who throws her (weak) recent material from Midnights at the end of her hits-filled “Eras” tour show, Sheeran sandwiched the new stuff in the middle. You could make the argument that Swift is just ending the show with her most recent era, but you could also see it as a way of avoiding lulls in the middle by playing to an exhausted crowd. Sheeran playing his Autumn Variations material right in the middle of hits shows his devotion to fans. For as great as they are, he's equally self-aware that people want to hear “Bad Habits.”
It's something he also does with his “Subtract” tour. While he plays the titular album in full, sad songs and all, he then plays the songs people paid to hear. He has not yet lost the sensibility to remember what got him here. There is a way to have your cake and it it too sans self-indulgence after all!
The new songs
Luckily, the Autumn Variations songs are great. The four he played are largely a mixture of his Multiply and Subtract work. Remnants of “Shirtsleeves” and “All of the Stars” reside in “American Town” and “Plastic Bag.”
The first new song played was “American Town,” which talks about the mundanity of a relationship (eating Chinese food from small white boxes and missing the end of rom-coms). It's got a pop-y and upbeat flare with an “Eyes Closed”-like chorus.
Of course, it appears Autumn Variations will have a signature love song. Multiply, Divide, Equals, and Subtract had the likes of “Thinking Out Loud,” “Perfect,” “First Times,” and “Colourblind,” and now we have “Magical.” Sheeran once again proves that love songs don't have to be overthought. I love the simplicity of the titular line, “To be in love, this is magical.” The song is almost like a continuation of “Colourblind,” and Sheeran clearly understands that love isn't always like a movie — proving his underrated relatability as an artist.
The opening notes of “Plastic Bag” instantly bring my mind to “Here Comes the Sun.” Once Sheeran gets into it, the Autumn Variations track is clearly a different song. It's almost as if “Breakeven” was any bit upbeat. Although, I will acknowledge that Sheeran dropping an F-bomb was a bit jarring. Not as bad as whenever Olivia Rodrigo says “bulls**t,” but still required a rewind.
Still the best show on earth
Ed Sheeran continues to lament his status as the best show on earth. The Amazon Music Live show was a great example of this. When he was announced for the gig, I remember scratching my head. Don't get me wrong — an Ed Sheeran show is an Ed Sheeran show.
Furthermore, he keeps evolving as a singer-songwriter. While there are still 10 songs he hasn't unveiled to the public, this is a strong indication that Autumn Variations could be up there with Subtract. Sheeran seems comfortable shifting out of the radio-friendliness of some of his past work — Equals is still my favorite album — and allowing his music to be something real. That's something most artists, who hide behind pop beats and backing tracks, are scared to do.
Ed Sheeran is making music for himself. But when he's playing live, he's playing for you.
Autumn Variations will be released on September 29.