Release Date: May 12, 2017
Record label: Columbia
It's hard not to approach Harry Styles' eponymous debut with IKEA-bag sized preconceptions and expectations. As the most charismatic member of one of the biggest bands in history (sorry Zayn) the expectation was there for him to do a Nick, go the way of Robbie or pull a Justin and shirk his boyband past for a More Mature Sound. The thing is, One Direction's sound was -- especially on their last two albums -- atypical of your traditional boyband fare; stadium sized classic rock in the shape of Journey, Foreigner and the Eagles, and later Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and the Police were more their cup of tea.
Harry Styles doesn't just want to be a rock star - he wants to be the rock star. And on his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself - instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe.
Harry Styles always seemed like the guy having the best time in One Direction: a dimpled, rakish prankster happy to wear the mantle of Class Clown -- maybe because he knew that Most Likely to Succeed belonged to him too. He wore the absurdity of boy-band fame lightly, with a wink and smile, and even his look (the swirling quiff of hair, the louche satin shirts, the scrappy jumble of stick-and-poke tattoos) had the dress-for-the-job-you-want whiff of incipient solo stardom. That giddy hedonist is all over his self-titled debut, but there’s a surprising dose of Serious Harry here.
You’ve got to have faith. Or at least a Faith. Ever since George Michael achieved the holy grail of smoothly transitioning from teen pop idol to credible singer/songwriter, all manufactured pop stars have eyed the late superstar’s model as a path to success. For some it’s worked, but for the vast majority of former boybanders, it’s not been a pretty journey.
When One Direction went on hiatus and its members went their separate ways to work on solo projects, the most anticipated of them was Harry Styles. His charming persona and elastic vocals had him positioned as the Timberlake of the group -- the one who might be able to stake his own claim in the pop landscape. With his self-titled debut album, he does a fine job of delivering a statement of independence while staying true to the One Direction sound.
Harry Styles is a master of the middle distance. Look at him turning his right cheek to the camera, strands of wet hair hanging lank, a rogue petal clinging to a clump above his ear: "Sweet Creature is available now. Album is available in ten days. I am available always." He remains an enigma after spending a half-decade in the world's most popular boy band and dating one of the world's biggest pop stars.
I'm still the only one who's been in love with me. Is Harry Styles a Rock Star now? More than anything, his debut is the fabled convergence of two diametrically opposed marketing techniques; poptimism, the insufferable lionizing of your sister's favourite chart topper, and rockism, the intolerable idolization of anyone willing to play a guitar. Together, they form rocktimism: that is, a dashingly handsome frontman from a remarkably conventional boy band, now growling and strutting as if he were Freddie Mercury incarnate.
W ho is Harry Styles, anyway? At the prow of the dreadnought that was One Direction, the now 23-year-old mouthed words and cavorted to pop music that was most often not of his own making. Styles - overexposed, yet unknowable - was always a staunch defender of the brand, particularly when 1D escapee Zayn Malik voiced his discomfort at the disconnect between the music he was making and the much cooler music he and his friends were listening to. Turns out, there was a disconnect for Styles, too.
When One Directioner Harry Styles released his debut single, "Sign of the Times," last month, it was a genuine shocker. That the 23-year-old singer associated with three-minute radio-pop would kick-start his solo career with a nearly six-minute piano ballad was bold, to say the least. But now that the full-length has landed, the question is: How does Styles hold up, Directionless? At its best, the self-titled LP presents impressively composed and thoughtful folk numbers ("Sign of the Times," "Ever Since New York").
So here it is, the album every One Direction fan has been breathlessly waiting for and the album that everyone else has been kinda interested in, y'know, just to see if the charismatic kid with the good hair and the famous girlfriends is any cop solo. The fans will of course be over the moon with this collection of radio-friendly rockers and heartstring tugging balladry, and everyone else? Well, they'll be pleasantly surprised - if not a little taken aback at just how many tricks he's pinched from other artists. To his credit, instead of taking the obvious route, in which Harry Styles became a post-Take That Robbie Williams, all silly gurns and stadium weepies, Harry and his co-writers have instead been looking to the masters of 1970s and 80s classic rock.
W hatever else you may have made of them, you could never accuse One Direction of not following the script. Over the course of their career, they did everything boybands are supposed to do - sell millions of records, tire of being objects of pre-pubescent desire, ride out tabloid scandal when blurry photos appear of one or more members smoking a joint, insist they will continue when a loose cannon member announces his departure, then split up a year later. Now, the band's former members find themselves doing the things former members of boybands always do: releasing pop R&B with arty inclinations, dabbling in dance music, or attempting to reinvent themselves as earnest acoustic singer-songwriters.
Over the past half-decade, the trend of teenage pop stars shedding their roots and maturing as artists in the second phase of their careers has played out fairly predictably. Either leaving behind the band like the Jonas brothers and Zayn Malik or simply outgrowing their adolescent image like Bieber, Miley, and Selena Gomez, stars follow a similar pattern of abandoning a more family-friendly sound and moving towards a full immersion into modern pop. They partner with cutting-edge producers, collaborate with rappers, and often dabble in R&B or EDM, with a fairly solid track record so far.
Who is Harry Styles making music for, exactly? There's a lot of conversation surrounding the One Direction sensation at the moment, and it's all more intriguing than the hollow karaoke assembly he's chosen to lead off his run as a 'serious artist'. There's been talk about whether or not he is suitable for 'grown-up' ears, while other notable writers have invoked David Bowie, or prostrated wildly - such as in the Rolling Stone profile penned by Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe; a piece which worked overtime in the 'gushing' department. The latter press clipping is where you find Styles taking the time to hail teenage girls for having more music taste credibility than they are traditionally recognised for.
Peering out at the audience from the stage at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium in 2015, Harry Styles good-naturedly taunted a bored-looking father who'd been dragged to a concert of Styles' boy band, One Direction. The guy was refusing to clap along with one of the group's songs, Styles explained, which was kind of bumming him out. Then the singer had an idea.
In the weeks of promotional press leading up to his debut solo record, I’ve grown fascinated with the void that is Harry Styles. When presented with any opportunity to express an opinion, whether, with Rolling Stone or The New York Times, Styles has answered with a hard “Pass. ” How does he feel about his friend and former colleague Zayn Malik effectively disowning the music they made together? Just fine, thanks.
You wouldn't be negligent in thinking Harry Styles lacked the flair of Britpop and classic rock pin-ups - pin-ups that have clearly enthused his own aesthetic. Possessing a strong editorial presence, a host of high-fashion sponsors keeping him on the front pages of glossy publications and billboards alike, Styles invokes the 'style' and swagger of a young Mick Jagger. The question remains, does he have the requisite artistic impudence, or is he merely ornamental? 'Sign Of The Times', the first taste of the self-tilted LP, managed to rouse the nation with its Elton John-esque power-ballad feel, ultimately belying its apocalyptic reference (and political intimation) for an end-of-relationship slow burner.
Like many groups to come out of X Factor, One Direction were assembled from would-be solo artists; despite their harmonies, scripted lad camaraderie, and terrifying sales numbers, the band was always a holding pattern until the boys could return to their solo careers. Zayn Malik, after an acrimonious departure, took the traditional ex-boybander route: getting the best R&B beats money can buy, escaping the band’s pent-up songwriting to relive his past couple years of getting very laid, and being rewarded with radio airplay. Liam Payne, with a Migos collaborations in the works, is angling to join him.
Harry Styles is one of the anointed ones from all those sold-out One Direction shows, another air-brushed boy band marketed with perfect hair and hit-factory choruses outlined in bubblegum pink. Like N' Sync's Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber before him, Styles now begins the transition to adult pop star with a concise, 40-minute self-titled solo debut that practically screams "Take me seriously!" So is there really something about Harry? The 10 songs edge toward '70s revivalism rather than 2017 hip-hop-EDM-urban-contemporary stylishness, a move presaged by One Direction tracks such as "Four" and "Fireproof. " Producer Jeff Bhasker specializes in freshening up retro-leaning sounds with artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Mark Ronson-Bruno Mars ("Uptown Funk").