Ex-OneDirection member Harry Styles becomes the second of his group to release a full-length studio album, taking an unexpected musical turn and abandoning his boyband past in a major way. Introduced by the epic, Bowie-channelling single “Sign Of The Times”, this album continues trends of bringing back popular sounds of the past and modernizing them. However, it is perhaps the first to do so with rock and roll music with such a wide audience. Styles would fit in perfectly at one of those high school dances you see in movies set in the 60s and 70s, drawing influence from the acoustic soft rock which dominated the airwaves at the time.
The ambition to pull off a project like this as a debut studio album, for a singer as well-established as Styles, is quite admirable, and the beautiful simplicity of his melodies and surprisingly classic-sounding voice often carry it well. However, there is not much here that comes close to matching “Sign Of The Times”, and Styles’ lyrics leave a lot to be desired.
Styles’ vocals are frequently layered with a slight echo effect to give them a spacey and ambient quality, which often fits in well with his lower-key acoustic ballads. The project alternates between these ballads, complete with harmonies and layered vocals, and all-out rock and roll numbers which feature abrasive and in-your-face guitar-driven instrumentals – Styles couldn’t sound any further away from his past. Grammy-winning producer Jeff Bhasker, who has worked extensively on great albums like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and fun.’s Some Nights, as well as sporadic contributions to many of our biggest pop stars, worked on every track here and has primary credit on 8 out of 10 of them. If Bhasker knows how to do anything, it is the creation of melodies that are beautiful in their simplicity, as well as the sneaky and subtle interpolation of numerous musical aspects. We see both extensively here.
Styles’ voice is very pleasant when it is used in the right way: that is, I prefer when he isn’t screaming at me the whole track. One of the greatest things Styles does across the board on this project is the slow build-up to a dramatic climax, taking his time in the quieter area beforehand. The greatest example is, of course, “Sign Of The Times”. We’ve all had a while to digest this monster by now, but my goodness is it a pleasant surprise. The song is nearly 6 minutes in length, and its attention to detail stands out far above its counterparts on this album. By the time we’ve reached the point where Styles’ voice is at its breaking point and choral vocals and winding guitar solos are thundering in the background, combined with the lyrical weight of the song – a dying mother giving advice to her newborn son – it is extremely powerful.
Regarding the tracks that remain on one side of this slow build, the quieter ones are a lot more enjoyable. Tracks like opener “Meet Me In The Hallway” and “Sweet Creature” are acoustic and minimalistic, drawing all the attention to producer Jeff Bhasker’s great ear for melody and Styles’ passionate and intense delivery. “Two Ghosts” is another great track, sounding like something Bhasker could have made for fun. (The band!). It’s the best written chorus here in a musical sense.
It is when the louder guitars and power chords kick in that the project goes off the rails a bit. Styles doesn’t have the charisma that he thinks he does when his lyrics are this clunky and underwritten. When he delivers louder vocals that sound like more of a parody of the style he is aiming for on songs like “Kiwi”, repeating things like “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business”, it works about as well as everyone thought a Harry Styles rock album might. It’s almost as if Styles did a lot more research on one side of the classic rock music he tries to emulate than the other.
While his full belt doesn’t sound particularly bad, it certainly makes me miss the tender vocals he was delivering before. These pure rock-leaning tracks also contain some of Styles’ most questionable and cheesy decisions. “Only Angel” is driven by falsetto “whoo-hoo”s and a cowbell. No, really. Styles’ lyrics might be the weakest aspect of the whole thing, however, frequently describing women in the most awkward possibly way or becoming too cliched or repetitive. “Ever Since New York” could basically be a Chainsmokers song, while the chorus of “Woman” is literally just Styles repeating the word with the same melody and cadence.
This project is far from perfect, but the good things about it work really, really well. Perhaps it’s just because of the surprise factor that this is Harry Styles, and “Sign Of The Times” blew our collective minds when it dropped, but it helps me forgive some of its shortcomings. This is the start of what is sure to be an interesting solo career.
Favourite Tracks: Sign Of The Times, Two Ghosts, Meet Me In The Hallway, Sweet Creature
Least Favourite Track: Kiwi