Harry Styles’ solo album might be the most anticipated debut this side of the millennium. Following years as the bullseye in the global 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.
Despite the red herring of lead single ‘Sign Of The Times’ (it clocks in at just under six minutes in length), the album is a short shrift 40 minutes and contains ten songs that are largely about women. Unlike Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake before him, there’s a deepened millennial sensibility to being a leading man. Harry is a sensitive soul; A post-Drake phenomenon; A serious pop performer with enviable vocal chops and a gifted ability to convey a song’s emotional heft. He oozes class, ease and a sense of import without thrusting forth from the hips, or wreaking of a self-satisfied sense of boyband emancipation. Both respectful of his past and nervous for his future, “Harry Styles,” the album, looks both ways.
Read on for a track-by-track:
1. “Meet Me 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 already know this one. It’s an apocalyptic overture that conversely began its life in the least apocalyptic of settings, within the serene paradise of Jamaica. Allegedly it was written in three hours. The music video, which arrived earlier this week, paints Styles as a walking-on-water Jesus figure, while also confusing him with another Harry (Potter) as he flies over British seaside cliffs. Arguably it’s his answer to Robbie Williams’ “Angels.” With a running time of six minutes, however, it’s unlikely to become a karaoke favorite. A musing on the end-of-world Armageddon we are living in, he welcomes us to “the final show, I hope you’re wearing your best clothes,” over lofty piano chords before lift-off on a chorus that seems aching to channel Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes” but probably lands somewhere around Starsailor’s “Silence Is Easy” or “Just Looking” by The Stereophonics. The post-Britpop force is strong in Styles.
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 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”
Apparently Nicholas Sparks’ novels inspired much of the songwriting on this debut, and it’s very easy to imagine an extended hyper emotional scene from “The Notebook” in the background while listening to Styles unwind this tragic, mystifying tale. “We’re not who we used to be / We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me,” he coos. “Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat…” Blimey. The slide guitar and country-folk leanings will place you in the heart of Styles’ second home of Laurel Canyon, among the company of David Crosby, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. There, I said it.
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 odes such as this one added swoon factor.
6. “Only Angel”
It’s the halfway point and all has changed! Suddenly the album bites back with raging rock riffs, Styles springing to life while being given temporary bail from the prison that is his aching heart. Owing a lot of his current poise to a certain Rolling Stone, he wears the soul claps and ‘woo-hoo’s of “Only Angel” as though he’s the lost child of Jagger himself. Styles’ vocal leaps and yelps, pounding with liberated, natural sex appeal. ‘Only Angel’ is a reminder to all listeners that this is a chocolate box of an album. It’s just not obvious at first what’s contained under each layer but everyone’s tastes will be attended to.
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”
The second song to debut on “Saturday Night Live,” ever since its unveiling the world has been wondering to whom it’s addressed — while largely pointing to former flame Taylor Swift. “Choose your words ’cause there’s no antidote,” he sings, vaguely, perhaps nodding to Swift’s own songwriting (many have surmised that songs such as “Out Of The Woods” and, er, “Style” are about Styles). The song is pure rock troubadour. Think: a young Ryan Adams singing about forlorn swimming pools and talking to walls. “Tell me something I don’t already know,” Styles pines, longingly questioning the loss of a love.
“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”
We began in the hallway and end at the dining table. What have we learned during our stay in Styles-land? His lyrics are so clouded in mystery (likely to avoid endless gossip column inches) that it’s hard to say precisely. Sonically, however, “From The Dining Table” works as a coda, bringing us back to that warm acoustic confessional style that almost veers into Laura Marling territory. “Fell back to sleep I got drunk by noon / I haven’t felt this cool… Even my phone misses your call by the way…” You’re put in the mental state of a global superstar who still gets painfully dejected by the object of his desire. By the time Styles nears the album’s end and blurts out the line, “Maybe one day you’ll call me and tell me you’re sorry, too” you’re rooting for him to receive some kind of karmic vindication.