“If you haven’t listened to my new album, this is gonna be a long night for you,” Ed Sheeran warned the audience at the first of two shows at the the Royal Albert Hall. The august 5,000-seater venue is an intimate space compared to the stadiums where Sheeran is accustomed to doing his entertaining. “I am a pop star but at heart I am a singer-songwriter, and to be able to play in a room where people sit and listen is special to me,” he said.
Rather than a regular Sheeran singalong, Britain’s reigning contemporary global superstar was intent on performing the most subdued album of his career in its entirety. Released in September, Autumn Variations was Sheeran’s second album of 2023, continuing his experiment with the muted tone and insular subject matter of May’s Subtract (-).
Reviews were decidedly mixed and while no one would call it a flop, Autumn Variation failed to generate Sheeran’s usual world conquering barrage of hits, plummeting down the charts a week after its release. On music industry aggregation site Chartmetric, Sheeran’s current career momentum is cruelly labelled “Gradual Decline”.
Sheeran is certainly in a challenging place in his career. Can he balance two barely compatible genres, sensitive songcraft and chart smashing pop? Elton John has probably been the most successful example of this, and Taylor Swift is currently giving it her best shot, but the jury is out on Sheeran’s pivot towards artistic seriousness. Do his simple songs of everyday anxieties have enough emotional charge to make up for the lack of sonic fizz?
Whilst Sheeeran usually performs completely solo, he had brought along a 16 piece ensemble, including strings, keyboards and two electric guitarists, to lend support. “The record is not exactly the cheeriest,” Sheeran admitted, but the material textures of his band brought surprising force to the performance. The rhythm section of live drums and bass, in particular, brought a fluid dynamic markedly different from Sheeran’s usual punchy backing loops, whilst six backing vocalists lent panoramic dimensions to his melodies. The fragile Midnight was delivered with the agitated oomph of a dancefloor banger.
After messing up the intro to The Day I Was Born, he decided to start again at a higher tempo, turning a fretful ballad about forgotten birthdays into a rousing anthem, with devoted fans lighting up the room by waving phones and singing as if they actually were at a party.
Nevertheless it was 40 minutes of completely solo encores that threatened to actually bring the house down. With his trusty loop station back at full blast, and diving into hooks and hits with relish, Sheeran challenged any notion of decline, gradual or not. The crowd were on their feet, clapping, stamping and singing at the top of their voices.
The 16 piece band was great but Sheeran’s one man band act is genuinely astonishing. He tested the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall by singing his ballad Afterglow without microphones or amplification to pin-drop silence, gradually bringing the crowd in as his vast choir. These shows may be a bit of an experiment in bridging a gap between artistic and commercial instincts, but whichever direction Sheeran decides to move next, the world’s favourite busker reminded sceptics that he has the songcraft and charisma to bring any audience with him.