He likes to keep his hand in, does Ed Sheeran. Just under five months since he completed his mathematical sequence of albums with – (Subtract), and a week since his American stadium tour finished, here he is again with 14 more songs.
Not only that, he’s been dropping into high school classrooms and crashing weddings to share new material, and says he has also recorded a live version of Autumn Variations, with every song recorded in a different, no doubt spontaneously combusting, fan’s living room.
The overriding sense is that he finds this stuff immensely easy, with his chameleonic way of jumping into grime, afrobeats, reggaeton or Irish folk and turning everything into hugely accessible hits. He’s probably written three more number ones this week.
But this year, though he’s still moving at a breathtaking pace, he has something to say with his music other than “Buy me!” Subtract was his most personal, introspective work, while this one, like its surprising inspiration, Edward Elgar’s 14 Enigma Variations of 1899, apparently contains musical portraits of his close friends.
American Town is a bright, cute song about an English girl trying to replicate the life she saw on Friends. Plastic Bag concerns a broken person obliterating their problems with weekend drinking: “When my friend died, it’s been years, still grieving/And I thought time would be somehow healing.”
The obvious comparison for this release and Subtract is with Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, sibling albums that also arrived five months apart with a tasteful indie folk feel provided by Aaron Dessner of The National. The listener might additionally be reminded of Coldplay’s Ghost Stories from 2014, as a low-key (relatively) low-seller that didn’t merit a bombastic accompanying world tour but was simply a case of a top-tier songwriter wanting to share some pretty songs.
With only a couple of Albert Hall shows in the diary to promote this one, it feels like he didn’t need to worry about how this collection might come across in vast venues. That means a track like Magical, which is as catchy a love song as the many others he’s written, resists the urge to go big and remains relaxed and dreamy.
There’s speculation that this is the start of his next album series, this time season-themed. There may well be 10 summer bangers and a dozen Christmas number ones on the way. But I like this autumn Ed, kicking leaves and keeping things simple.