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Harry Styles takes a bold step forward by leaning on the past in his solo debut

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Cover detail of Harry Styles (Columbia Records)
Cover detail of Harry Styles (Columbia Records)
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Harry Styles

Album: Harry Styles
Label: Columbia Records

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There are myriad reasons why Harry Styles is the most popular and recognizable member of One Direction. Chief among them, however, is the utmost respect he has for the band’s (primarily) teenage girl fan base. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” he mused to Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone, an interview in which he also calls girls “our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents—they kind of keep the world going.” Speaking to The New York Times, Styles reiterated this stance: “I just think it’s a little naïve to just write off younger female fans, in particular, in the way people do. Like I’ve said, young girls were massive fans of the Beatles. It’s crazy to think that they’re not intelligent.”

Styles can relate to being underestimated, as he doesn’t receive much respect for his own, omnivorous musical tastes. He’ll listen to artists such as Shuggie Otis and Keith Whitley in the car, Rolling Stone observes, while Harry Nilsson’s work was omnipresent as Styles was crafting the record. “[Nilsson’s] lyrics are honest, and so good, and I think it’s because he’s never trying to sound clever,” he told USA Today. For the NYT, he name-checked “Pink Floyd, Beatles, Stones, Fleetwood—all the stuff I grew up listening to” as influences on his first solo debut.

It would be tempting to suggest that Styles—an erstwhile boy bander whose group was assembled, right before the cameras, for The X Factor—is striving to present himself as more “authentic” here, attempting to lend his solo career more artistic credibility. But that’s an overly simplistic (if not a little condescending) way of approaching Styles and, by extension, Harry Styles. Well-crafted songwriting isn’t the exclusive domain of classic-rock icons, for starters, and One Direction always dabbled in blurred genres. The group’s 2013 song “Little Black Dress” is a ’70s power-pop barn burner, for one, while during a recent Today appearance, Styles and his solo band even worked up a rocked-out version of 1D’s moody pop confection “Stockholm Syndrome.”

So it’s no surprise that the thoroughly entertaining Harry Styles falls in the vein of a ’70s singer-songwriter record of the sort you’d expect from those classic influences, only with a production that gives it a contemporary sheen. Crisp acoustic and electric guitars are prominent in the mix, burnished with occasional piano, sweeping orchestral color, textured percussion, and gooey harmonies. Styles and his co-conspirators (including Kanye West and Fun. collaborator Jeff Bhasker, the record’s executive producer) smartly take a holistic approach to the diverse sounds and styles of that decade. In many ways, Harry Styles resembles a Time Life ’70s rock collection.

Standout “Only Angel” makes it clear why Styles did such a convincing Mick Jagger impression on Saturday Night Live: The song is a swaggering powder keg of glammy rock ’n’ roll with cowbell, hand claps, and falsetto croons. “Kiwi” is a gleeful blues-rock stomp with jagged electric guitars, while the smoldering “Woman” is a hybrid of Elton John-caliber blue-eyed soul and funky modern R&B. Elsewhere, the record nods to sparse folk (“From The Dining Table,” “Sweet Creature”), glam-burnout ballads (“Sign Of The Times”), lightly psychedelic rock (“Meet Me In The Hallway”), and majestic power-pop (“Ever Since New York”).

Still, Styles is careful not to go full-on retro. The recurring la-la-la chorus chants on “Carolina” recall Blur’s Britpop jubilance, while Styles is a dead ringer for Travis’ Fran Healy on “Ever Since New York,” all trembling vulnerability and wide-eyed longing. And while it covers a lot of genre ground, its smart sequencing ensures a cohesive whole. It feels like an album, meant to be savored and experienced all at once, not a collection of scattered singles.

If there’s one place where Styles’ bid for artistic maturity falls slightly short, it’s that the lyrics don’t quite measure up to the album’s sophisticated sonics. Styles’ attempts to dirty up his squeaky clean image—bragging, “And now she’s all over me / It’s like I paid for it,” in “Kiwi;” starting “From The Dining Table” by talking about jerking off in a hotel room—unfortunately rely heavily on stereotypes. His female muses are all generally paper dolls, wispy character sketches with few distinctive personality traits. Although that vagueness works for something like the messed-up, heartbroken pleas of “Meet Me In The Hallway,” elsewhere it’s purely detrimental.

The retrogressive “Only Angel” offers the wince-inducing observation, “Couldn’t take you home to mother in a skirt that short,” while the crush object of “Carolina” is similarly a “good girl,” but otherwise mostly a blank slate. The accusatory “Woman” doesn’t even bother giving its titular character a name; Styles’ anger that she’s moved on to someone else is enough of a transgression that she’s simply referred to as “woman” throughout.

Sometimes, as in the case of “Carolina,” this sketchiness and ambiguity makes for tantalizing fantasy fodder. But given Styles’ repeatedly professed respect for his female fans, and the way he’s taken pains to praise their depth and intelligence and agency, crafting songs that treat them as one-dimensional objects sends some mixed messages. All the heartbreak and longing is obviously intended to make Styles a sympathetic character, but doing so at the expense of the women in his life is a disappointing creative choice.

Thankfully, other songs on Harry Styles approach relationships (and/or a lack thereof) in respectful and affecting ways. “Ever Since New York” captures the anguish of a romantic ending, with lush harmonies on the line, “Oh, tell me something I don’t already know,” underscoring the desperation. “Two Ghosts” (a song heavily rumored to be about Taylor Swift) acutely captures the discomfiting, empty feeling of realizing that the spark is gone. “Sweet Creature,” meanwhile, is a simple but effective song praising the strength of a bond that endures despite turbulence. And Styles redeems an eye-rolling demand tucked into “From The Dining Table”—an apology from an ex who’s moved on—with a plaintive, sympathy-inducing vocal delivery.

These contrasts sum up Harry Styles. On the one hand, it’s a wholly safe product, relying on familiar signifiers with decades of proven success. But it takes a bit of risk in asking Styles to take them all on himself, to present himself not as just a singer or frontman but also an artist, one who aspires to someday be considered among the pantheon of the greats. The sheer confidence on display here suggests he’s more than up to the challenge; hopefully the songs will someday catch up to his ambition.


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