When Harry Styles decided to douse the visuals for his new album in a cool millennial pink while donning a crushed velvet suit, nobody – perhaps not even Styles himself – could have predicted the fan’s audible shock on social media. Their teen idol had blossomed into something new, and after six years as the heartthrob of One Direction, his roguish boyband perception had been shed. In its place lay a colourful, flamboyant and apparently “gender-defying” style that barely anybody knew what to think of.
In 2015, Justin Bieber swapped twee, sticky love songs for Skrillex and Diplo-produced electro bangers, solidifying his status as a pop music deity. Similarly, Styles’ former bandmate (and Highsnobiety cover star) Zayn Malik managed to do a public-perception-180 by dropping the sex-tinged Pillowtalk. But for those two, a yearn for mass appeal came by exiling all elements of their youthful vulnerability. They were men now, and were hellbent on making sure we all knew about it.
Styles, on the other hand, is doing something different. While we all expected the former 1D frontman to go down the predictable (and probably, easier) path of becoming a Jagger-esque lothario with hip-grinding sex appeal, he switched it up in other ways. Harry Styles, one of the most powerful people in music, decided to shine a light on his heartbroken melancholiac side, airing his romantic grievances to the world in a way that runs counter to the more aggressive stances by his peers.
Millennial pink and crushed velvet aside, the song “Sign of the Times” is our first taste of what solo Styles sounds like. Even in the context of a 10 track LP, it’s a soaring, stand out slice of Bowie and Queen-tinged pop/rock, meticulously produced and sounding like an apology letter to an unknown lover told through gritted teeth. “We never learn, we’ve been here before,” Styles coos to a lover, before a whistle that sounds like a space shuttle throttling at full force towards the atmosphere sounds out, nodding towards progress: “We’ve got to get away”. It would be easy to call this track a Diet version of Styles’ obvious influences, but you’ve got to hand it to an artist who, with no responsibility to impress anyone other than his loyal and lucrative fanbase, gives something this intriguing a go. It worked in his favor.
Themes of unrequited or conflicted love are smothered into every possible crevice of Styles’ eponymous debut, in some places appearing more explicitly than others. Call it musical sacrilege, but there are sad tinges of Elliott Smith on the album’s opener “Meet Me in the Hallway,” a strange, string-led ode to an old girlfriend that Styles misses so much that he pleads for a cathartic dose of morphine to cure himself of her absence. Sure it’s simple songwriting, but there’s something that has shifted in hearing a boy who has captured an abundance of female fans’ hearts plead with such aching honesty about romantic failure.
On the whole, male pop stars tend to steer clear of basing their brands on not being the object of somebody’s affection, particularly if they’re looking to branch out and reach a wider audience. Instead, men in pop music are obsessed with ‘the chase;’ flirtatiousness; sex. Styles’ record spends ten tracks trying to avoid falling into those pits of pop mundanity, and it’s all the better for it.
Perhaps then, this record isn’t a pop album. Genre-wise, it skips from the warm acoustic feel of “Sweet Creature” to the alt-rock riot of “Only Angel:” a song that deceptively starts sounding like a glorious choir service, before ascending into a swaggering number about Styles’ efforts to seduce a girl who doesn’t seem to be getting the message. It’s one of the album’s few attempts to turn the tempo up, but even then, Styles never becomes the dominant force in his lyrics, continually batting away his opportunities to take the upper hand.
The transition from being in one of the biggest boy bands in the world to working solo must be a lonely one, and so Styles has enlisted a slew of co-writers and producers to help make this record. GOOD Music signee Jeff Bhasker, whose previously lent his hand to the likes of Kanye and Lana Del Rey, has worked on almost every track, while indie singer/songwriter Kid Harpoon helped Styles write songs like “Sweet Creature” and “Carolina.” For a record that feels so emotionally wrought and brimming with an off-kilter amount of honesty for a pop star, it’s strange to think that some of these songs have as many as six writers, Styles included. Such a swollen list of credits would usually lead to some finger-pointing and accusations of authenticity being called into question. But in this case, the finished record is so well constructed, both in terms of its production and Styles’ unwavering vision to reinvent his by turns psychedelic and sweeping 70s vision, that it’s hard to knock it.
There’s a line in “From the Dining Table,” the album’s swan song, in which Styles – the same boy that bounced on to reality TV screens back in 2010 and subsequently sold a lot of tour tickets and merchandise (primarily to people your little sister’s age) – talks of waking up in a hotel room, masturbating, then falling asleep in a drunken stupor. It’s one verse, but it feels so uncomfortably intimate that you can’t even question that the artist himself couldn’t have written it.
While we bow to Bieber for his “coming of age” records and freshly formed hyper-masculine image, it’s easy to forget that there’s a line that exists between a pop star’s yearning for mass appeal and their cultural acceptance. On his debut record, Harry Styles toys with the work of his idols, using their perceptions as boundary pushers to hopefully shift some perceptions of his own. The result is a spontaneous, bold attempt at a man’s own repositioning; stepping back from the spotlight and reappearing more fragile, and more human.
For more of our album reviews, get our take on Perfume Genius’ masterful ‘No Shape’ right here.
- Text: Douglas Greenwood