Whenever anybody haughtily complains about “the state of music these days” from behind a keyboard in the current year, they usually point to acts like One Direction, a saccharine boyband put together from a reality TV show, as an example of why it’d be better if we went back to the “good old days”, where you could get Pink Floyd tickets for a tenner, provided you could find enough petrol to drive to the gig. These are the kinds of people who will likely have rejoiced at the news that One Direction amicably split in 2016, leaving a billion pre-teen girls heartbroken, but paving the way for each member to do their own thing.
Harry Styles, the most visible and by far the prettiest member of the band, announced his solo album in early 2017 and immediately baited the world’s music press with “Sign of the Times”, a piano-led ballad filled with overwrought vocals, and lyrics which seem to hint towards serious issues and grown-up social commentary. The idea of a former boyband member going solo and releasing a debut album is nothing new, but for that album to claim rock and country as its roots, and promise stadium-ready, classic FM-radio vibes from the get-go, is curious to say the least. The journey from debut solo single to full album release was dizzyingly fast, and when Styles’ eponymous album dropped on May 12, based on the strength of the promo singles, many who would’ve stayed well away may have been willing to give it a chance.
The album, 10 tracks and 40 minutes long, splits itself between wannabe hard-rockers (we’ll get to that in a bit), and more intimate, low-key acoustic numbers. Single “Sweet Creature”, carried along by skipping acoustic guitar phrases and lyrics like “Sweet creature, wherever I go, you’ll bring me home” seems to try and paint Styles as a troubadour songsmith in the vein of Dylan, Donovan, and the like. Given Styles’ provenance, this seems more like a career move than an artistic decision, but the songs themselves are sweet, and Styles’ voice adapts beautifully. “Meet Me in the Hallway”, and closer “From the Dining Table” are similarly peaceful, the former soaked in reverb, a surprisingly atmospheric intro to the album.
Styles’ love for The Rolling Stones, more specifically their age-defying, dandyish frontman Mick Jagger, has rarely been hidden too far from sight, and this influence seeps into the album’s other songs. Nowhere is this more visible than on “Only Angel”, with its bluesy guitar riffs, cowbell stomp, and “woo-hoo” backing vocals, which are just about as close to “Miss You” from the Stones’ Some Girls (1978) as possible without incurring a lawsuit. It’s a clever forgery, but not quite the full works. The out-and-out rock festival continues in the second half, with “Kiwi” sounding like a strange hybrid between the stop-start electric energy of Ash and the galloping racket of Wolfmother, with its hook, “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business”, and the sound of somebody literally snorting about halfway through (Led Zeppelin’s “For Your Life”, anybody?).
It’s in these songs that Styles fully commits his efforts to shaking the clean-cut boyband image, and the results are a pretty enjoyable romp through all the familiar, revival-rock staples. It’s a world away from the One Direction canon, though what Styles may have gained in a newer, more grown-up sound, is undermined somewhat by lyrics which are clichéd at best, and grating at worst. The chorus of “Carolina” goes “She’s a good girl, she’s such a good girl” over and over, while “Woman”, another blues-rock pretender, features such gems as “Apologies are never gonna fix this / I’m empty, I know / And promises are broken like a stitch is”. It doesn’t come across as dishonest, just a little undeveloped, as if something mature and nuanced should come along afterwards, but this never occurs.
Any criticism levelled at the songwriting, though, is academic. It certainly can’t be aimed at Styles himself, since almost every song on the album has at least five named co-writers, but maybe that’s part of its problem. The production, recording, and performance of every tune is immaculate, but most of the writing seems to play it safe. There’s not a lot of variety, nothing that calls for repeat listens, and nothing which appears genuinely personal. Songs like “Sign of the Times” are perfectly-executed radio rock, bombastic and bursting with noise and colour, but not a whole lot to sink your teeth into.
On the whole, despite the Jagger-isms and the irresistible poise of Styles vocals, Harry Styles the album falls just short of the mark. Harry may have to learn that, despite all the producers and airtime, you can’t always get what you want.
Josh Will Eden