Solo careers are the inevitable aftermath of boy bands, and what’s often just as inevitable is the stylistic avenues various members will end up exploring upon their first forays into releasing music under their own name. In the case of pop monoliths One Direction, many of the predictable patterns of post-group solo output have been materialising. The band’s original breakaway, Zayn Malik, was desperate to distance himself from his initial boy band image by pursuing a sexier and more mature R&B sound on his debut album from last year, Mind Of Mine, whilst Niall Horan has been walking down the acoustic singer-songwriter path, particularly on his first solo single, This Town, with a folk-pop sound evocative of Ed Sheeran or any number of the copycats to have hopped on his coattails since his break-out. With Liam Payne’s solo undertakings thus far even enlisting Sheeran for compositional credits on his debut single, Strip That Down, which leaned more towards an R&B and hip hop driven branch of pop music and, of course, featured a guest appearance from the increasingly omnipresent Quavo, and with Louis Tomlinson pursuing a pop-infused, club-tailored EDM sound on his collaborative singles with the likes of Steve Aoki, the pieces were seemingly falling into place for One Direction’s batch of solo careers to be as cookie-cutter as they come. This was, however, until the unveiling of Harry Styles’ debut single, Sign of the Times, a piano-based power ballad that would likely fit rather snuggly into the pop and rock music landscape of the 1970s, which caught many music critics off-guard not solely because of the stylistic direction the singer had decided to take, but simply because of how successfully Styles channelled his overt influences from the likes of David Bowie, Elton John, Queen and potentially even John Lennon’s solo material. Although an unapologetic throwback track, Sign of the Times nevertheless set Styles up as pursuing a semblance of artistic identity that few of his fellow One Direction members, or many other contemporary boy band breakaways, seemed anywhere near as close to attaining. Naturally, therefore, the interests of many, including myself, were piqued to hear Harry Styles’ self-titled, full-length, solo debut album, as the prospect that a One Direction member could potentially come out with a glam rock gem was undoubtedly exciting. Now, with the final product here and having taken far longer to digest the record than I normally do for my reviews, it can safely be said that Harry Styles is a smorgasbord in just about every aspect. On the surface, Styles pulls from myriad different facets of popular music, particularly British popular music, from the 70s and occasionally other eras, almost to the point wherein it could potentially be a thorny task to analyse the album without contextualising many of its songs with regards to their obvious artistic influences, as it’s arguably rather important to judge how well Styles does these sounds justice, given just how brazenly he references them. In fact, this leads into the second salient aspect of Styles’ debut that makes it quite the mixed bag; that being the quality of the popstar’s songwriting, which reaches unequivocally impressive highs at times, but occasionally drowns in its influences too much or suffers from some severe short-sightedness. Even despite these apparent shortfalls, however, it’s hard not to be generally positive about Harry Styles and the extent to which it develops the musician’s artistry, potentially even alluding to much greater things from Styles in the future.
The fact that so many songs from Harry Styles can be pigeonholed based on the artists from whom the singer is clearly pulling stylistic inspiration is both the best and worst aspect of this album a lot of the time. When Styles’ compositional chops and charisma shine through, he manages to give these timeless sounds a more modern and arguably even glossier twist, considering just how bright and dynamic the production remains throughout the tracklisting. When the artist’s songwriting isn’t quite as focussed or his lyrics are bogged down by poor framing, however, it can be rather easy for the record’s nostalgic veneer to be interpreted as overindulgent or self-satisfying without the substance to match its admittedly shiny exterior. Thankfully, this is far from the case for the most part, and Styles is largely successful in pinning down the fundamentals of these styles and relaying them with potent performances and luxurious instrumental flourishes. The opening track, Meet Me in the Hallway, reads somewhat like an early Pink Floyd track, whilst Styles’ spin on this sound is most definitely modernised to an extent, but nevertheless retains some of the rawer potency of the psychedelic and art rock outfits that he seems to be using as stylistic touchstones. Although the singer’s dreamy, reverbed reflections on a breakup are heavily centred around the place of a palatable melodic progression and sticky refrain, much in the vein as one would expect from a song by a boy band member, the touches of spacey, shimmering synths that play against the bounce of the sleek bass convey an atmosphere and sense of openness to Styles’ sound that remains respectably loyal to the likes of Pink Floyd. The ascending licks from the creaky acoustic guitar during the chorus are exceptionally satisfying as they intertwine with the artist’s powerful vocal outbursts and, perhaps most importantly, capture an organic sound that permeates the piece, even through its lavish production value. Sign of the Times strikes a similar balance, whilst its kaleidoscopic eruptions of soaring strings, beautiful guitar embellishments and choral vocals that drive the song towards its epic climax are phenomenally gratifying. What makes this cut all the more crowning is Styles’ cogent compositional framing, with the unique melodies that he stashes away for the song’s acme adding a great deal of emotional weight to his already impassioned, belting vocal delivery. Even when evoking the sounds of The Beatles on a track like Carolina, which reeks of Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s songwriting contributions to the band at around the time of Rubber Soul, Styles simply executes this sound with the songwriting skills and structural competency to undoubtedly make it stand out. The song’s propulsive bass groove, well-worked string ornamentation and infectious vocal melodies all carry a simple, but no less effective sense of playfulness that captures the essence of what can make such straightforward songs work so well. What’s more, Two Ghosts is so reminiscent of much of Beck’s folk-orientated output that it could have fit seamlessly onto his last album, Morning Phase, alongside tracks such as Morning, whilst Styles’ incorporation of a more pervasive influence from contemporary country music infuses a slightly different flavour into his vocal melodies. Ultimately, when the artist knuckles down with the compositional prowess and general knowledge that is required to deftly execute any number of the classic sounds pursued on Harry Styles, his songwriting flair is matched with rich instrumentation and vibrant production that unequivocally does these styles justice.
With this being said, however, there nonetheless remains a looming question concerning whether Styles is providing these styles with a breath of fresh air or vice versa. Indeed, with Harry Styles being the strongest full-length project to come from the One Direction camp by some considerable margin, it can be easy to be blinded by just how refreshing it is to hear a boy band member come through with such a finely matured sound and not consider how this endeavour stacks up against the artists that he is clearly mimicking. Whilst one may be willing to suspend their disbelief for the purpose of fully enjoying the album’s numerous high points, it’s not difficult for its weakest moments to shatter this illusion to some extent. Woman, for instance, which stands as the most obvious instance of Elton John worship across the course of the album, is also one of the most underwritten songs here, with the instrumentation leaving a lot of space that isn’t played with in any interesting way, whilst the one-word refrain becomes a bit of a drag as soon as it becomes evident just how uneventful it’s going to be. The two conventional dad rock songs towards the record’s mid-section, Only Angel and Kiwi, are hardly underwritten or poorly performed, more than they simply meet the bare minimum that one would expect from adherence to such an archetype. What’s more, with Only Angel being an undeniable throwback to The Rolling Stones circa the late 60s and early 70s, and with Kiwi being unequivocally expressive of some slightly more modern, blues-infused hard rock acts like Wolfmother, Styles’ personal charm doesn’t translate so well onto these tracks, to the point where there comes a moment of disappointment when it’s him who starts singing and not the far more charismatic Mick Jagger or Andrew Stockdale. It’s moments such as these wherein the artist’s foray into classic rock seems more superficial than substantial and, although Styles seldom approaches these sounds without at least a basic understanding of, and reverence for, what makes these stylistic models work well, such tracks nevertheless allude less towards artistic maturity and more towards being stuck in the past in a rather uninteresting fashion.
As previously stated, Styles’ debut album is undeniably a mixed bag, especially in terms of song quality. However, with the best tracks being sensationally surprising and the worst being either slightly underwritten or somewhat trite and uninspired, the hodgepodge nature of Harry Styles evens out on the positive side of the fence, and considerably so. With the earlier moments in the tracklisting signifying a level of proficiency and maturation that few singer-songwriters to have emerged from the same place in the music industry as Styles have so cogently conveyed, and so early on in their careers, the future for the musician as a solo artist will surely be fruitful, should he look ahead with this same clarity of artistic vision.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10