Ed Sheeran, Royal Albert Hall, review: Self-indulgent with all the authenticity of ChatGPT

Sheeran is beyond being dented by critics - but a jukebox of his greatest hits couldn't save this distractingly disjointed show

Performing his new album Autumn Variations, followed by a kind of jukebox of his greatest hits, Ed Sheeran at the Royal Albert Hall was a show of two distinct halves. While the second was more fun than the first, I’m sorry to say that both left me somewhat exasperated.

Autumn Variations, inspired by Edward Elgar’s 1898-99 Enigma Variations, comprises 14 songs about 14 unnamed friends. Accompanied by a live band, ballad after ballad declared Sheeran to be a singer-songwriter rather than say, the RnB star of “Shape of You” or the idiosyncratic boy who came up through the grime scene back in 2010; more’s the pity. While Sheeran was clearly in his element on stage, the songs themselves made the Autumn Variations segment of the show near irredeemable. How? Let me count the ways.

Atomised across 14 stories, the album’s narrative voice was distractingly disjointed. But it was also repetitive – beyond the Elgar conceit, Autumn Variations is loosely concerned with its titular season, mirroring cold weather with sullen songs that are as generic as they are self-indulgent. Lyrics such as “maybe I’m destined to be always lonely, alone, a loser, pathetic” from “Page” gave a very literal voice to emotions like self-doubt, but always stopped short of real vulnerability. Ventriloquising imagined experiences, Sheeran sketched an emotional no-man’s land, neither authentically his own nor truly relatable – more GCSE devised drama piece than sophisticated soliloquy.

(Photo: Mark Surridge/Supplied)

“Plastic Bag”, for instance, described a drug problem in the least nuanced terms possible: “If you’re giving out love from a plastic bag, I’m a wreck head, ah”. Other lines sounded robotic, like ChatGPT doing an impression of human feeling without quite understanding how bodies or emotions work (“Do I look like a monster underneath all my skin?” sung Sheeran; um, yes, probably?). “England”, meanwhile, managed to be both trite and weirdly nationalist: “There’s a peace and a quiet in this island of ours / That can’t be mirrored by anywhere else.”

Sheeran’s band was great, but they were ultimately fighting a losing battle – especially as he ditched them after the album playthrough in favour of his famous live looping technique. Launching into the gig’s sing-along section, we were treated to the catchy songs that made him a household name: sexy “Shape of You”, sharp “Shivers”, the irresistible riff of “Bad Habits”, like a good wedding band playing floorfillers. Of course, there’s a reason wedding bands cover Sheeran so ubiquitously; as his final offering rang out – an unmiked Irish folk song that turned into 2020’s “Afterglow” – he had proven his pop pedigree even if his latest album leaves its future somewhat in doubt.

As one of the world’s most successful music stars – and the UK’s most listened-to artist for six out of the past eight years – Sheeran is arguably beyond being dented by critics. Certainly, for the thousands of listeners who catapulted Autumn Variations to the top of the album sales chart in its first week, my griping won’t matter a jot – nonetheless, I must insist that we ask for better than ChatGPT could muster from our apparent national troubadour: “Do not enter the wild here if you want to be found for the free,” sings Sheeran on “England”. No, me neither.

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