Early in One Direction’s career, Harry Styles became “the one with the hair” to me. Granted, that descriptor shouldn’t go far in a group as aggressively moussed as 1D, but it worked as shorthand for saying, “You know, that one” in a photo. You look at One Direction, and even before the “solo careers” conversation came to the forefront with Zayn breaking rank, Styles just seemed like The Guy. To be fair, post-Justified pop dictates that at least one member tries going alone in every successful teen group, but Styles has that preternatural charisma (see also: Lorde) where he’d try going solo even if the culture didn’t demand it. He never had the best voice–remember, 1D was a band made up of guys who couldn’t cut it on their own in X Factor–but between the vocal talent he did have, his self-possession, and being the 1D member best at being famous, he had more than enough to shoot his shot. It just seemed inevitable.
Which brings us to Harry Styles. It’s fine. Anyone here for Appointment Hate Listening is going to be disappointed (and didn’t pay much attention to 1D–most of their stuff outside “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Little Things” is okay), as is anyone expecting an instant classic. The album is a model of efficiency: discounting the elongated lead single “Sign of the Times,” songs average out to the Pop Song Standard three and a half minutes for 10 tunes in 40 minutes. The songs themselves, written by Styles and arena-ready producer Jeff Bhasker (credits: Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Mark Ronson) and his team, are similarly professional in their classic rock aspirations: the electric guitars crunch, the acoustic ones squeak and buzz, and Styles’ vocals are brought all the way to the front in a mix that’s as cozy as crushed velvet. None of the songs outright suck, but a number of them confuse evoking the greats for being great. Overall, Harry Styles is a competent debut album that suggests Styles has the pieces for a long career, he just needs to work on figuring out how they fit.
I’m also interested in what Harry Styles isn’t. The narratives around the album are that (1) Styles has bucked the expectation set by Justin Timberlake for former boy-band members breaking out, and that (2) he’s going against the grain by releasing music that’s not beholden to modern trends. These are true, but not that true. Styles is still running Timberlake’s “I’m older and sexier” playbook, he’s just doing it with pricey Gibson hollow-bodies instead of expensive synths. Really, he takes more from Timberlake than the other 1Ders: “Two Ghosts” is his “song about a pop star ex” in the vein of “Cry Me a River,” and with “Sign of the Times,” he approaches the The 20/20 Experience mentality of Serious Art with a long song done on real instruments.
And yeah, the album’s brand of guitar-slinging, singer-songwriter classic rock is trend averse, but I’d argue it chooses something even safer. Harry Styles cribs from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, (I guess, kinda) David Bowie, and Stealers Wheel; music that isn’t really “in” or “out,” it just is. You don’t have to seek out “Benny and the Jets” or “Stuck in the Middle With You”–I never have–they find you. They find you common spaces, like network drama ads, family friendly restaurants, and waiting rooms, and Harry Styles is more approachable because it leans on that familiarity. While it’s possible that shirking Quavo and whichever producer Bieber just worked with might cost Styles radio spins, I think it’ll likely benefit him now and later more than it’ll hurt: he gets cred now for being different/”different,” and odds are “Sign of the Times” will live a longer life because it doesn’t sound beholden to 2017.
You can see the benefits in the reaction to “Sign of the Times.” That wee little Harry Styles from One Direction’s opening solo bid was a 6 minute long, sing-to-the-rafters, rock ballad complete with a choir, a massive vocal performance, and wide-screen drum rolls and guitar strums was (and hell, still is) a shock; the fact that “Sign of the Times” more or less pulls off the grandeur feels secondary to it trying in the first place. But more than the “Bowie-esque” tag I’ve seen ascribed to it over and over, “Sign of the Times” calls to mind Oasis. It’s a chord-friendly, sweeping ballad. Its size and sweep belie the fact that it’s about fuckall. Its title shamelessly bites a more famous work, and–this is my favorite part–its opening lyric ganks the name of a mid-period Oasis strums-’n-piano ballad that itself is about fuckall (Noel Gallagher has to find this hilarious), and in spite of that, it still works. Wisely, Harry Styles doesn’t try anything as big again, letting “Sign of the Times” stand on its own.
Instead, he tries on a handful of rock guises. “Carolina” is humid Revolver worship. “Woman” has to exist because Styles thought covering “Benny and the Jets” would be too obvious. “Two Ghosts” dips its toes in Sea Change-y singer-songwriter melancholy with bonus “Please listen to my thoughts about my two month relationship from the first Obama administration’s twilight” subtext. You get a few Travis picking exercises out of “Sweet Creature” before the album does a 180 two songs later with the dick-swinging rock of “Kiwi.” It’s the less put-upon stuff like “From the Dining Room Table” where Styles fares best, mostly because there’s actual attention to detail in the craft and songwriting. Even if the melody’s a little sing-song on “…Table,” and opener “Meet Me in the Hallway” is overwrought, Styles holds them together as songs.
Which is the exact opposite of what happens when he tries to rawk out on “Only Angel” and “Kiwi,” neither of which need to be here. I get that Styles basically had to put one or two focus-grouped rockers on the album as part of his Rock Star candidacy, but holy fuck, could someone have at least written them? Not only could the music of “Only Angel” soundtrack a Viagra commercial set to play exclusively in Hard Rock Cafes, but its lyrics were rote by the time Styles was born. He’s a charismatic guy, but it’s impossible not to sound 76 singing “Couldn’t take you home to mother in a skirt that short” and “She’s a devil in between the sheets.” He’s let down again on “Kiwi,” which is essentially Wolfmother’s “Woman” with lyrics somehow dumber than “She’s a woman, you know what I mean.”
But, like I said, Harry Styles never really flames out, even with those 2 knuckle-draggers. This is due to the album’s core sense of self, and that’s what separates it from the work of other 1D alumni. Everyone’s working off a template of some form, Styles is just the most successful. Zayn’s “Have you heard Trilogy?” R&B-tinged pop is confident, but generally anonymous in a trend-chasing way, while Louis Tomlinson’s collaboration with Steve Aoki is an okay spin on BiebEDM. “Slow Hands” from Niall Horan is probably the most likeable of the Other Guys’ work, although anything looks promising next to Liam Payne turning in an already dated Mustardwave appearance with Quavo doing a Ty Dolla Sign impression. Styles’ closest comparison might actually be Miley Cyrus, who–having made her dollar off rap–is making MOR rootsy pop rock that’s likewise deliberately out of pop’s step. The two of them are signalling authenticity and a respect for the classics, but they’re also really, really interested in distancing themselves from their recent personas and position themselves as mature grownups. They’re making something functional instead of enduring. Boy bands and ratchet pop have a way of sticking, and they’re just trying to shake it off.