The debut solo album from the golden boy of British pop is far more accomplished than his previous pop efforts, with only its lack of cohesive direction and tired lyricism dragging it down.
The first single off Harry Styles’ eponymous debut album, which was dropped on the unsuspecting public several months ago, tells listeners from the get-go to “just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times.” This single line spoke volumes to fanatical One Direction enthusiasts around the world. The pop group had barely been limping along after the departure of Zayn Malik, and the so-called ‘hiatus’ that was called eventually saw three of its four remaining members also produce new solo material of their own. Sign of the Times truly lived up to its title – the grandiose piano ballad, backed by a full-bodied choir in all its hyperbolic glory and running at nearly six minutes long, was an obvious death knell for the nation’s favourite boy band.
Is this former X-Factor boy band recruit really the new Bowie?
For Harry Styles himself, it was undoubtedly also meant to herald his rebirth from the ashes of his pop career. Rumours circulated prior to the album’s release that his debut solo effort “sounded like Queen and [David] Bowie”. Father John Misty even took to Twitter to announce that Styles’ new album was, and I quote, “FUCKING INSANE”. Landing a role on the upcoming Christopher Nolan war epic Dunkirk didn’t hurt the publicity surrounding his album, either. The press coverage surrounding Styles skyrocketed as he began to forge new paths for himself, in the same way that Disney stars like Selena Gomez began dual acting and music careers in an effort to break away from their kiddie-scene roots. It should be pretty clear by now that Harry Styles is in no way just an album in itself. If anything, it is Styles’ first stepping stone on the path of self-reinvention – which can be pretty rocky, looking at the demonisation of Miley Cyrus’ breakout attempts in the mainstream media, and closer to home, the flop of Zayn Malik’s solo career. So, of course, we arrive at the question on everybody’s minds. Does it live up to the hype? Is this former X-Factor boy band recruit really the new Bowie?
One thing about Harry Styles that is certainly notable – though not in a good way – is its complete lack of musical direction whatsoever. Album opener Meet Me In The Hallway does indeed bring the late and great David Bowie to mind with its tinkling, cosmic synths, and Styles’ voice taking on a certain fey, ephemeral quality. But shortly after, Two Ghosts then takes us deep into country ballad territory; Eagles-style harmonies and all. As if that weren’t already enough of a switch-up, Only Angel and Kiwi turns all of that on its head as Styles begins to emulate greasy rock n’ roll greats, The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart. Had enough of the indecision already? Too bad, there’s more. Second single Sweet Creature is reminiscent of Blackbird by The Beatles, Woman owes much to Elton John’s musical output in the 70s, and album closer From The Dining Table channels the gentle melodies and soft sentimentality of Sufjan Stevens. Harry Styles is less of an album and more of an experimental collection of songs – this pervasive undercurrent of cluelessness leads it to flip and flop between genres and influences faster than a dying fish out of water. There is no grander concept at play behind Harry Styles; no nucleus-like unifying idea that pulls its tracks together as electrons in orbit. There is, simply, the realisation that Styles is just a young musician still trying to find his niche. Given time, he may very well do that. Until then, Harry Styles can only give the impression that he is yet another jack of all trades, but master of none.
in fact, listeners will find it quite hard not to enjoy themselves, even in the slightest.
Mastery, however, is never the be-all and end-all with pop music. One of the defining qualities of Harry Styles is how inherently enjoyable each of the tracks are in themselves. Like squabbling siblings around the dinner table, they may not work together as a whole. But there is a song for every mood on the album, and with at least six co-writers on every track (including Kid Harpoon of Florence + the Machine fame, as well as Uptown Funk co-writer Jeff Bhasker), they certainly do shine in their own ways. Styles’ slightly hoarse but ultra-versatile voice truly stands out on the album’s slower numbers – Ever Since New York and Sweet Creature present earnest, uncomplicated melodies backed by instrumentation – more accomplished and mature than anything from Styles’ One Direction days. Then, of course, there is Sign of the Times, whose falsetto refrains and fervently-sung bridges establish Styles as a vocal powerhouse in his element, and will probably have many listeners belting out the chorus from memory in no time. The toe-tapping, shoulder-shaking rock n’ roll of Kiwi or the Southern swing rhythms of Carolina may seem out of place on an album that mostly consists of low-tempo ballads, but are nonetheless incredibly fun when they do come along. Harry Styles is an album that must therefore be enjoyed in bits and pieces; perhaps as testament to pop music’s emphasis on strong singles and growing detachment from the album format. But that certainly does not say that it cannot be enjoyed at all – in fact, listeners will find it quite hard not to enjoy themselves, even in the slightest.
But there is a fine line between entertainment and pure silliness that should not be crossed. This is the point at which “good” and “bad” are categories that need to be thrown out the window, because having as many as seven people working on one song clearly wasn’t an adequate filter for some of the inanities that slipped through the cracks. “When she’s alone, she goes home to a cactus,” snarls Styles on Kiwi, in his best Mick Jagger impression. The impressive delivery and the bombastic guitars backing Styles are momentarily all for nought, however, as this utterly indecipherable little quip ruins the rest of the verse. It’s almost fascinating to wonder how a lyric so nonsensical failed to raise the eyebrows of any of the six writers involved on the song, including Styles himself. Other lyrics are less shocking in their stupidity, and just, well… boring. The female subject of Only Angel is a girl who Styles “can’t take home to mother in a skirt that short” and turns out to be – surprise, surprise! – a “devil in the sheets” who just can’t help herself; while on Carolina, the entire chorus merely consists of Styles repeating “She’s a good girl!” till the cows come home. Some fellow millennial listeners would cry misogyny, but the truth is far more bleak – the hackneyed ‘virgin or whore’ female trope has already been bludgeoned to death from over-usage in every single pop song ever. You’d think, for a man trying to reinvent himself, that Styles and his co-writers would have had more sense to try straying from the path a little more.
Harry Styles is indeed riddled with insanity.
So, what is Harry Styles, at the end of it all? This album could be a number of things. It could be seen as a misguided first step into the big wide world of music; a desperate grasp at any influences available to prevent Styles from drifting off into unknown territory. One could, alternatively, consider it a triumphant breakaway from the shackles of boy band stardom and a promising start to a music career that will undoubtedly strengthen with time. As for me, I prefer Father John Misty’s graceful description of the album. Harry Styles is indeed riddled with insanity. It may be an album of inconsistencies, and at times, incoherence, but endures despite its flaws as an irrefutable sign that pop’s golden boy is definitely brimming with potential.
Image: Columbia Records