This article was first published by The Edge on 23rd May 2017
It would be the act of an ignoramus to say that a singer fresh from boyband megastardom would be looking to break a few rules and taboos in beginning a solo career – didn’t we discuss this last year, with ZAYN’s almost embarrassingly smouldering Mind Of Mine? One can assume that former bandmate Harry Styles, as a real human being and not a simple marketing device, wants to do the same. And that’s exactly what he’s done, but his aim’s somewhere far left of the R&B favoured by Malik.
There’s something of a circular nature to the uncluttered, concise Harry Styles. Opener ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’ begins with requests for reconciliation and a pained memo: “Just let me know I’ll be on the floor, on the floor / Maybe we’ll work it out / I gotta get better, I gotta get better.” As the album’s opening statement it feels almost sullen, as if Styles were standing in the corner of the studio for the near-whispered lines. From just four instruments – an acoustic-electric guitar, a potentially enormous bass, some synths, and Styles’ own voice – a layered, intricate sound is crafted within ten seconds. ‘From The Dining Table,’ meanwhile, takes that confessional approach of lyricism and doubles down on it to close the record, with the already infamous opening “Woke up alone in this hotel room / Played with myself, where were you?” Apart from an optimistic bridge where strings and a smidgen of backup vocals accompany, this song is as stripped-back as Styles could likely ever make, wrapping up the album in similar fashion to its beginning.
In between these forthright and minimal songs are eight more tracks, each frequently bigger, easier, and a little too eager to give away Styles’ influences. They draw from a grab-bag of ’60s and ’70s pop-rock: The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are in ‘Ever Since New York’; ‘Carolina’ is a bluegrass-infused ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ mimic; as broody and bold as ‘Sign Of The Times’ can get, the modest piano/vocals beginning is more reminiscent of Elton John than David Bowie; even ‘Sweet Creature’ is more akin to early Leonard Cohen than the Ed Sheeran piece detractors may dismiss it as.
Though they’re a little overly faithful to past artists, they never fail to entertain, every so often throwing out a small flourish bordering on the bizarre. For instance, the second verse of ‘Sign Of The Times’ brings thunderous drums and guitars that drown out the piano for a short stretch, introduced by a sliding upwards note that’s almost identical to the Looney Tunes fanfare. A low, whooshing, whistling gust of air (which also features in the 50 second prelude to ‘Only Angel’) signals its end, and this, with the rest of the sample-soaked, angelic choir-backed prelude, gives the beefed-up track a hat tip to Pink Floyd. Rather cannily, the instrumental bridge is able to balance these very distinct styles through the softer pick-up and echo on the electric guitar.
Speaking of Pink Floyd, the line “We’re just two ghosts swimming in a glass half empty” is close to plagiarising the iconic line of ‘Wish You Were Here’ (“We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl”). But beyond that, the most-likely-about-Taylor-Swift-but-let’s-not-make-things-explicit ‘Two Ghosts’ could rival her for its marketability: the twangy electric, strummy acoustic guitars of the beginning, paired with a simplistic drumbeat to keep rhythm in check, make the song a near perfect imitation of Red and older era Swift releases, not to mention the winking opening lyrics referencing his namesake song of ‘Style.’ Yes, rather sly and clever of him, but the whole thing is just a little bit dull. There’s nothing scandalous here, it’s actually sweet and wistful; just a shame that you can get the same mood for fewer seconds if you skip on to ‘Sweet Creature,’ which plays much better as a breather on the album than it does as a single.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Harry Styles is knowing how to treat its influences-on-sleeve approach and contextualise that in 2017’s markedly different pop landscape. It’s easy to dismiss ‘Kiwi,’ a tearaway three minutes that wears its classic rock style proudly, yet I honestly can’t remember the last time a major pop act released something quite so shamelessly effective in provoking giddy grins. As weird as a chorus of “I’m having your baby / It’s none of your business” is to hear from someone who’s only 23, it’s no less weird than the superiority in ‘Carolina.’ Both choruses traffic in punchy sexuality whilst hiding clever details in the verses: “It’s New York, baby, always jacked up / Holland Tunnel for her nose is always backed up / When she’s alone she goes home to a cactus / In a black dress, she’s such an actress.”
That’s one of the best rock verses of 2017 so far, and it’s in probably the second-most high-profile British release of the year. That’s not nothing. The big moments on Harry Styles might be heavily influenced by better artists of the past, yet good lyricism helps to ground the tracks and give them more individuality. If this was being put out by a no-name newbie it could be heralded as a remarkable work of remixing an old style for a new generation. Luckily for us, there’s a massive PR campaign behind this guy, so for a short while we get to enjoy something that the genre’s long been missing.
Harry Styles is out now via Columbia