May 19, 2017 by Tosh Farrell
Almost two years have elapsed since One Direction went on hiatus. In that time we have seen solo releases from Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, former band member Zayn Malik and most recently, Harry Styles. Liam Payne is also working on his solo debut with a single coming May 19.
Harry Styles released his eponymous album May 5 through Columbia Records. It was arguably the most highly anticipated solo project from the former boy band. The album’s first single, “Sign of the Times,” was released April 7 and secured number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was the first of the stylistic departure for Styles’s music.
Ditching the mainstream pop of One Direction, Styles goes for a variety of ’70s rock styles. “Sign of the Times” is a six-minute piano rock ballad that feels familiar but not necessarily derivative. He recently revealed that the song is written from the point of view of a mother dying during childbirth. Though this concept is a little off-putting, the lyrical content is vague enough to forget about it.
Only eight songwriters contribute to the album, with Styles co-writing on each of the 10 tracks. This is a very small number, considering that just one song on the radio today could almost have more writers than there are lyrics. Members of the team have written for the likes of Beyonce, Kanye West, Fun, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Florence and the Machine, and Young the Giant. The bulk of the project was recorded and written by the team on a two-month trip to Jamaica.
The spoken introduction to the penultimate track states: “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we find?” This statement almost reads as a summary for the album. Though presented with more drama than comedy, the album depicts many relationships and interactions with love.
The songs are very rock oriented, with catchy pop-influenced hooks. This sound from Harry is familiar to hardcore One Direction fans that know deep cuts like “A.M.,” “Olivia” and “Long Way Down.” They sound fresh yet familiar. The lyrics are obviously personal, but he maintains privacy by keeping their subjects shrouded in mystery.
Nonetheless, his dedicated fans are determined to find the truth. Fans of Harry Styles had already decided that “Two Ghosts” is about his ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift before the album was even released. The song is one of the strongest on the album, with raw emotional lyrics and a relaxed mid-tempo groove. He compares himself and his former flame to ghosts, unrecognizable from who they were when they were together.
“Meet Me in the Hallway” is a plea to be chased after a fight. He’s walking out on her, but is hoping she follows and feeds into his addiction. “Carolina,” the last song written for the album, has a groove reminiscent of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.
“Sweet Creature” almost sounds like an early Mumford & Sons tune. It’s a beautiful ballad where Harry’s vocals really shine. “Only Angel” and “Kiwi” are the strongest rock performances on the album. “Kiwi” is my personal favorite and the shortest on the album. The drums hit hard and drive this raucous performance.
“Ever Since New York,” which was fittingly debuted last month on Saturday Night Live, asks for answers after a harsh break up. The lyrics are a great example of his ability to sketch a scene with emotions that feel so specific with lines that remain vague.
The album closes on a melancholic note with “From the Dining Table.” The most lyrically specific song on the album; the heartbreak is real on this one.
Overall, the album lives up to all of the buzz. Harry Styles does properly establish himself as a rock star, but fails to bring something sonically new. All of the songs seem to borrow too heavily from the past, and you don’t get a sense of what a Harry Styles song sounds like. Listeners get the deepest sense of Harry’s style from his lyrics.
The 40-minute album is a must listen for fans of One Direction but should also pique the interest of some of the group’s haters. For the readers out there that subscribe to Apple Music, be sure to also check out the short “Harry Styles: Behind the Album” documentary released May 15. He performs the album in the famous Abbey Road Studios and talks about the process and inspiration behind the songs.