Conrad Duncan takes on the eagerly anticipated debut from rock’s newest wonderboy, Harry Styles
Harry Styles is so extra. He announced the release of ‘Sign of the Times’ on the 30th anniversary of the Prince album of the same name and its music video shows him flying through the air like some kind of teen-pop messiah. But in case you didn’t get the message that this song is important, here’s an excruciating explanation given for the song in an otherwise mundane Rolling Stone interview:
“The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there’s a complication. The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.’”
But even though it’s hard to forget that Styles’ marketing has been pretentious and overly eager to prove his artistry, it doesn’t stop him from being good. In fact, ‘Sign of the Times’ is rather brilliant; an emotionally potent piano ballad that builds to a spectacular climax, and its video is one of the best moments of pop culture this year. It might all be smoke and mirrors, arguing for Styles’ importance by screaming it so loud that you have to surrender, but I can’t pretend it’s not effective. That feeling remains after listening to the full album as well. If Harry Styles looks, acts and sounds like a serious artist then he must be one, right? Or am I being conned? These songs don’t tell me anything I didn’t already know from listening to rock music’s many greats, nor do they tell me much about who Styles is as an artist. But on a basic level, I like them and I like him because of them, which means that no matter how deceitful ‘Harry Styles the artist’ might be, it gets the job done.
Harry Styles takes the influences of ‘Sign of the Times’, mainly radio-friendly 70s rock, and expands on them over a concise 41 minutes, meaning you move straight from songs that sound like Stealers Wheels to Paul McCartney-esque folk ballads. It’s also a surprisingly consistent set as well. Only ‘Meet Me in the Hallway’ noticeably falls short, opening the album in worryingly pedestrian fashion despite a spirited vocal performance. But after that false start, the album moves forward without really missing a step. ‘Two Ghosts’ and ‘Ever Since New York’ are elegant pieces of alt-country, ‘Only Angel’ stands-out with swaggering groove borrowed from The Rolling Stones, and ‘Woman’ seductively combines a ‘Benny and the Jets’ strut with ‘Crocodile Rock’ backing vocals*. Throughout Harry Styles, the song-writing is entertaining even if it’s not astonishing, the production is light-footed and graceful, and Styles himself makes for an engaging host. If it had a little more character, I’d go as far as to call it great.
The problem with this album is that Styles is clearly not an expert song-writer yet, even if he shows considerable talent across these 10 songs. His songs are noticeably unadventurous, to the point that each one is likely to remind you of a different classic rock hit. Similarly, his lyrics are liable to fall back on clichés, especially when he’s singing about a love interest. Sometimes, this simplicity can be charming, like on the goofy ‘Carolina’, but at other points, it’s simply groan-worthy. On the raucous ‘Kiwi’, the opening couplet – she worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect – almost damns the song immediately. The rest of the song’s lyrics are largely nonsense as well but Styles and his band commit to the garage rock backing enough to give it a pass.
However, I’m not entirely sure that the general vagueness of Harry Styles/Harry Styles is unintentional when you consider his background. One Direction’s success was partly based on fun pop songs but like many boybands, it was also fuelled by the innocuousness of its members. It’s hard to really say much about who Harry Styles is from his time in One Direction, other than the fact that he’s nice and generally happy, and that vagueness allows you to project whatever you’d like onto him. This album largely does the same thing, setting up a basic premise – Harry Styles does 70s rock – without ever attempting to fully expand on it. In fact, the album mainly defines itself on what it’s not. Firstly, it’s not sugary boyband pop and secondly, it’s not Zayn Malik’s trendy, charisma-vacuum R&B. Both of these things definitely work to Styles’ favour on this record but you’d struggle to call it a distinct identity.
But wait, does this mean that Harry Styles isn’t a good album? Well no, Harry Styles is good because it’s full of good songs but I wouldn’t call it the work of an artist. Artists break new ground by exploring territory that no one has entered before, they take risks and often confound your expectations. Harry Styles the album and Harry Styles the musician have only taken risks here in relation to our expectations of pop solo careers, not in relation to the wider context of music. However, this album isn’t just good considering it’s a Harry Styles album, it’s good regardless of context. It’s in no way ground-breaking and Styles isn’t close to being the next David Bowie but he may still mature into being a great artist in the future, even if he definitely needs time to grow. Hopefully, this album will give him that time.
*it’s way sexier than that sounds, I promise