“I wanted to see if I could write something that people liked, without knowing everything about me,” says Harry Styles in a documentary about the making of his first solo record.
British pop megastar and stylish chap Harry Styles takes another great stride in his post-hiatus One Direction career with Harry, which dropped at the stroke of midnight around the globe.
Harry Styles’ Solo Album may be the most expected debut this side of the century. Taking after years as the bullseye in the worldwide behemoth that was One Direction, the singer is taking center stage with a self-titled effort that’s a classic cocktail of psychedelia, Britpop, and balladry. If it was a color, it would be the baby blue of Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster or the soft pink of Mick Jagger’s suit when he performed on “Top Of The Pops” in 1971. It’s rock and it’s roll, but it’s also soft and sensitive. Produced by Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Fun.) it’s a record that could force the position of mainstream radio by ushering in a reprise of proper music — ensembles, verse-chorus-verse, rich instrumentation, or, basically, Adele’s bag of tricks.
The album is a mixed bag - good, odd, awkward, clever and heavily indebted to 1970s soft rock. Here's our verdict on the 10 tracks.
1. Meet In The Hallway
“2…3…” Styles verbally counts into his opening track to add a sense of unveiling; a sense that he’s come prepared; a sense that this is no longer a rehearsal. When Styles was younger, he told Rolling Stone, he was exposed to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon.” This track does possess some Floydian tendencies with a psychedelic acoustic guitar strum that recalls the likes of “San Tropez” on “Meddle.” In fact, Styles’ album artwork wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf next to some Floyd vinyl. You imagine it’s been crafted to look, feel and sound like an instant British rock classic, preened to slide alongside your prized records library. As Styles sings about walking the streets all day and being left in some cold, random hallway, he kicks off proceedings with a plea to an ex: “I gotta get better/And maybe we’ll work it out,” he sings, dreamily.
2. Sign Of The Times
You know this one already - a weepy, six-minute piano ballad that nods to Queen, Bowie and Prince, with a rather unconventional lyric.
"The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there's a complication," Harry told Rolling Stone.
"The mother is told, 'The child is fine, but you're not going to make it.' The mother has five minutes to tell the child, 'Go forth and conquer.'"
We're not sure why she sings about "running away from the bullets", though.
Unlike “Sign Of The Times,” you can feel a waft of relaxed Jamaican island life immediately on this jauntier, guitar-driven, rhythmic affair, which, true to the title, is about a girl in Carolina (North or South is not specified). “She’s a good girl, she’s such a good girl/She feels so good,” sings Styles. Despite its simplicity, the way he wraps his voice around the phrasing completely eradicates any of that cloying awkward clumsiness possessed by Ed Sheeran – the competition for this kind of thing. The production searches for the funky weirdness possessed by Beck on “Midnite Vultures” or “Odelay” (think: “Peaches And Cream” from the former). With a breakdown that nods to The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” Styles’ attempts at the classic canon of British songwriting means he sometimes falls into the kitschier territory of Britpop also-rans such as Space and Kula Shaker. However, any Britpop fan knows that Space and Kula Shaker are not to be sniffed at.
4) Two Ghosts
Fans have long suspected that when Taylor Swift's Style - with its references to a boy with "long hair, slicked back, and a white T-shirt" - was about Harry Styles. So this song, in which one of the characters wears that "same white shirt", is bound to set tongues wagging.
Whether it's about the couple's failed relationship or not, Swift's influence is apparent in the storied lyrics, which describe a couple who've become "two ghosts, standing in the place of you and me, trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat".
5. Sweet Creature
The third song to be released ahead of the album, “Sweet Creature” attempts to ape the sort of picked out acoustic strums of a “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s, “Norwegian Wood”‘ by The Beatles or Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again.” This particular track was entirely self-penned by Styles in collaboration with Kid Harpoon [Florence & The Machine, Jessie Ware]. He croons, “We don’t know where we’re going but we know we belong” over warm guitars like he’s serenading his lady while realizing he’s lost his way on one of London’s many grassy heaths as the sun begins to set. The level of earnestness and honesty here is mimicked in the way he holds himself onstage right now. Styles’ hair, his suits and the caressing of his microphone will no doubt lend codes such as this one added swoon factor.
6. Only Angel
A sweeping, orchestral introduction suddenly gives way to a Rolling Stones rock hustle, complete with hollered "woo-hoo"s and copious amounts of cowbell.
Indeed, Harry goes full Jagger in this song, about a girl who claims to be an angel but is a "devil in the sheets".
"Couldn't bring you home to mother in a skirt like that," he drawls, "but I think that's what I like about it."
It's easy to imagine this as the album's opening track in an earlier configuration.
Like something of a one-two punch, “Kiwi” picks up from “Only Angel'”s amped-up guitar grooves, bettering the banger that’s just lodged itself in your hips. The lyrics seem weirdly like a new take on the concept for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”: “This girl is crazy / I think I’m losing it,” he confesses, before chiming, “I’m having your baby / It’s none of your business.” Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, it’s nevertheless delivered with gravelly tones that suggest Styles isn’t messing around. There’s also a distinct mid ’90s Britpop appeal to “Kiwi.” One track that reminds of Kula Shaker could be a fluke. Two is definitely not coincidence.
8. Ever Since New York
After the glam rock rush of Only Angel and Kiwi, its back to the ballads with this jittery track, which Harry premiered on Saturday Night Live last month.
Once again, it finds the star wandering the streets of Brooklyn, fretting over the state of his relationship.
It's pretty stodgy stuff, elevated only by Harry's supple backing vocals.
“Shall we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we find?” says a voice at the start of this track. Like Frank Ocean on “Super Rich Kids,” Styles seems to borrow from Elton John’s “Benny And The Jets,” seemingly interpolating those same R&B piano stabs. The track also possesses hints of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman.” “Selfish I know but I don’t wanna see you with him,” Styles sings, scorning another old flame. “I hope you can see the shape I’ve been in while he’s touching your skin.” Ouch.
10. From The Dining Table
The album closes with - you guessed it - a ballad about a relationship on the rocks.
This one is more reflective, as Harry sings sotto voce about waking up alone in his hotel room (and, in a frankly unnecessary detail, "playing with myself").
"Even my phone misses your call," he sighs wearily in the chorus.
A hopeful mid-section is all blossoming, Beatles-esque strings and gorgeous harmonies as the singer fantasises: "Maybe one day you'll call me and tell me you're sorry." But the facade collapses and he's left alone and bereft as the album fades out.
It's a subdued ending to an album that strains to establish Harry Styles as a credible musician.
Taken as a whole, it just about works, often in spite of itself - and there's certainly something intriguing about the idea of Harry as a tortured rock balladeer.