Well this is a surprise.
If you told me three years ago, one year ago, six months ago, even six days ago – that I would enjoy Harry Styles’ self-titled solo debut as much I do, I’d probably come back at you with an inflected half-questioning “say whaaaaaaat?” before probably spinning into some sort of chain of denial just to keep whatever sort of musical reputation I have left.
I know exactly three facts about Harry Styles – he’s a member of the boy-band One Direction, he dated Taylor Swift for a while, and he’s now launched a solo career along with the other members of 1D. But, wow, I really did not expect this sort of output from Styles. Unbelievably, Harry Styles is an album full of 70’s/80’s influences that touches on everyone from America, the Eagles and the Beatles, to Elton John and David Bowie, to Paul McCartney, Prince, and Pink Floyd (you read that right), as well as some more modern influences like the over-the-top stylings of late nineties Britpop. It could come off as sounding like a mess – but, the fact that Styles pulls it off with both grace and poise is impressive, considering this is only his solo debut, and he is only 23 years old. Take for instance lead single “Sign of the Times,” a mid-70s power-ballad through and through, but its Styles’ clear and strong voice gives the song legs all the way through its five and half minute running time. Despite its overly long running time (the track could have probably been cut short by at least a minute), the instrumentation in this track is on point, courtesy of producer Jeff Bhasker’s (fun., Kanye West) undiluted techniques. My favorite part of the track is probably the instrumental lift from the verse to the chorus that echoes the same sort of glam-guitar or synthetic lift that Elton John’s “Rocket Man” does.
While Harry Styles is an album chock full of played out (some would say cliché) musical techniques and musical motifs from years past, the album comes off as unique and full of merit because it lifts from some really great places. In addition, Styles’ voice and instrumental accompaniment is unique enough that it plays like a breath of fresh air in a musical world full of imitators and artists trying to escape the cookie cutter that has been pop music for the past three or four years. While there isn’t one standout track, or any moment that makes your jaw drop because of its sheer power, the album itself is all the better because it has a bunch of halfway decent songs that keep the listener motivated to keep going. The track list itself is a bit top-heavy, as its first five tracks – including the pseudo-country croon of “Two Ghosts,” the aforementioned “Sign of the Times,” and spacey opener “Meet Me In the Hallway, are all the clear highlights of this short ten track set. Unfortunately, when Styles voice gets buried behind a wall of cheesy pop guitar and instrumentation (“Kiwi,” and “Only Angel” being the two guilty parties here), the songs connect less, and the whole track sounds overwhelming, and, more importantly don’t have the upbeat hooks to really make an impact. These sorts of songs, as well as some nearly identical chord progressions make the album run out of steam towards the end, but it’s still a striking first effort from Styles.
What’s interesting to think about is the prospect of Harry Styles’ solo career turning into a revitalization of guitar-based rock on the pop charts in general. No one knows if he will follow this album up with an album of similar themes, or if he will go down the same path as Justin Timberlake and pivot to a more R&B/synthetic sound. But, if this album is any indication, it is that Harry Styles’ has the raw talent and cult following to make a significant mark on the music industry – hopefully he keeps following his rock heroes, and sooner or later develops into a multi-versatile artist who relies less on soft crooning and can adjust to more up-tempo tracks and take it up a notch.