It is an intensely risky decision, both professionally and personally, to leave a successful band and pursue a solo career. But in his self-titled debut album—his first release since British boyband One Direction went on hiatus—Harry Styles demonstrates a remarkable willingness to try anything and everything. In the record that seeks to establish him as a serious musician, the ex-boybander tries on the musical styles of his predecessors like patterned, designer-brand suits.
With a vocal versatility that lends itself as easily to slow guitar ballads as it does classic British rock, Styles makes it hard to deny the recognition of his talent and musical ear. In “Kiwi,” he tries on the Stones’ rock n’ roll sleaze, emulating the electric guitar riffs of “Gimme Shelter” and “Start Me Up.” And “Sweet Creature” adopts finger-plucked, acoustic guitar in G major—the same key, and nearly the same tempo, in which Paul McCartney wrote and sang “Blackbird.”
That’s not to say that he never branches out on his own. “Woman” builds the most eccentric soundscape of the record, one that opens with a voice talking about Netflix rom-coms and includes distorted electric guitar, a syncopated reggae beat, and even a synthesized duck noise.
If that sounds like a departure from One Direction, his lyricism is also a far cry from hey-girls and yeah-yeahs—but sometimes it’s for the worse. Women on the album tend to fall into hard rock archetypes. The girl in “Carolina” has “a book for every situation” and “gets into parties without an invitation.” The muse for “Only Angel” is secretly “a devil between the sheets” in “a skirt that short.” And the disembodied “pretty face on a pretty neck” in “Kiwi” “worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes,” “in a black dress, she’s such an actress.” It’s disappointing that Styles, outspoken in interviews in his unrelenting support of teenage girls, buys into chauvinistic tropes.
In the nest of these apparent contradictions, Styles negotiates the incongruity between the images of Harry Styles, past, present, and future. There’s boyband Harry and solo Harry—long-haired, quirky introvert and womanizing hard rocker; charismatic, friendly teen idol and newly minted Hollywood actor.
There’s an art to reconciling all of these identities. For Styles, it manifests in a tight control over his privacy, over what the public gets to know about him. As a PR-trained pop star, he is a practiced hand at concealing hard facts with metaphor, dodging probing interview questions with diplomatic answers and winsome charm. But all that suppression builds up. “We don’t talk enough,” he belts in “Sign of the Times,” the nearly six-minute, classic rock first single off the album. “Tongue-tied like we’ve never known,” he croons in “Two Ghosts,” a twangy requiem for lost love. “Telling those stories we already told, / ’Cause we don’t say what we really mean.” And in “From the Dining Table,” a stripped-back track that would not feel out of place on a Bon Iver album, “We haven’t spoke since you went away / Comfortable silence is so overrated.”
Because his lyricism is deeply coded, even veiled details feel like intimate confession. There’s honesty here—not the kind that would be found amid the thudding bass and frivolity of a teen pop album but rather a candor that masks as much as it reveals. “Brooklyn saw me, empty avenues,” he sings in “Ever Since New York,” an acoustic indie track. “There’s no water inside this swimming pool / Almost over, had enough from you.”
Catapulted to hyperbolic fame as part of One Direction, Styles spent his most impressionable years under the public’s magnifying glass. Underneath the glamour of celebrity lies the kind of world in which superficiality prevails, paparazzi accost him at airports and nightclubs, and journalists focus more on his love life than his musical ability. Even Hollywood parties end the next morning in lonely hotel rooms, getting drunk by noon. Is it any wonder he sounds so jaded?
“I’ve never felt less cool,” he sings in the final track of the album. It’s the sort of vulnerability that’s only now being unveiled, a glimpse into the life of a lonely teenage superstar who has set himself free. It’s ironic that Styles laments the inability to say what he means, because this album has proven that he has the power to do just that: to become brazenly, unabashedly himself. And if this is what growing up looks like, it’s a good fit. Or rather, style.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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