This post-One Direction debut is a melange of musical homages that fails to reach the heights of Styles idols. But one thing it isnt is dull
Whatever else you may have made of them, you are able never accuse One Direction of not following the script. Over the course of their job, they did everything boybands are supposed to do sell millions of records, tire of being objects of pre-pubescent passion, ride out tabloid scandal when blurry photos seem of one or more members smoking a joint, insist they will continue when a loose cannon member announces his deviation, then split up a year later. Now, the bands former members find themselves doing the things former members of boybands always do: releasing popping R& B with arty inclinings, dabbling in dance music, or attempting to reinvent themselves as earnest acoustic singer-songwriters.
Harry Styles may have chosen the trickiest path of all. His debut album, Harry Styles, ticks every container on the Take Me Seriously checklist. Squad of triple-tested songwriting help assembled, including platinum-plated hitmaker and former alt-rock artist? Ticking: the credits include Uptown Funk co-author Jeff Bhasker and one-time indie singer-songwriter turned Florence+ the Machine collaborator Tom Kid Harpoon Hull. Longest and ostensibly least commercial track released as debut single-cum-warning shoot? Ticking: the doleful six-minute-long ballad Sign of the Times. Songs that knowingly reference classic stone, including early-7 0s Elton John( Woman ), the Beatles Blackbird( Sweet ), U2 circa The Joshua Tree( Ever Since New York) and the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers( Only Angel )? Tick. Slightly self-conscious stabs at sonic experimentation? Tick , not least a rhythm track punctuated by what is just like one of those tin toys that moos like a cow when you turn it over being repeatedly inverted. Lyrics that attempt to address topics more grownup than dancing all night to the best ballad ever? Tick, up to and including the closing From the Dining Table, a little bit of fingerpicked folk that opens with the diverting image of Harry Styles assuaging his loneliness by and in the forthright heart of the ballad itself, let us not mince words having a wank.
In America at least, this series of maneuvers already appears to have borne fruit. Styles is on the embrace of Rolling Stone, the recipient of an extremely serious profile by Cameron Crowe, august music correspondent, film director and, it would appear, stranger to the concept of Laying It On A Bit Thick: over the course of 6,000 words, he variously compares Styless voice to that of Rod Stewart in his prime, his backing band to the Help! -era Beatles, and the studio in Jamaica where much of the album was cut to Big Pink, the Woodstock house where Bob Dylan and the Band changed the course of rock music in 1967.
Without wishing to pooh-pooh the writer-director of Almost Famous and Jerry Maguires musical decision, anyone who buys Harry Styless solo debut in the faith that its going to sound like a cross between Every Picture Tells a Story, Help! and The Basement Tapes may find themselves somewhat disappointed. That in itself doesnt mean that its a bad album, simply that some people should calm down a little bit in their efforts to convince the public that its all right be interested to hear music made by a one-time fabricated popping idol.
The debut largely avoids the biggest pitfall awaiting the boyband member keen to shed his old image, the faith that maturity is somehow signified by making music exclusively in shades of beige: simply the dreary Two Specters voices as if it was tailor-made to fit in between the factoids on Steve Wrights afternoon show. Styles is remarkably good as a confessional singer-songwriter , notwithstanding the sneaking feeling that expending his entire adult life as the states members of a hugely successful boyband hasnt left him with a great deal to confess, beyond the fact that being trapped in hotel rooms is enduring and having it off with an inexhaustible supply of attractive and occasionally famous dames isnt quite as efficacious a panacea for existential ennui as one might have hoped. Theres an affecting tenderness and emotional punch about the Nilsson-ish Sign of the Times and if you can get past the opening image of him, as he throws it, playing with myself From the Dining Table.
Not all the albums musical homages operate: Styles is urgently ill-equipped for the rocknroll raunch of Only Angel and the glammy Kiwi. Alas, his voice musics no more like Rod Stewart than it does Rod Hull, while the lyrics are a cloudburst of hoary pub-band cliches that propose his heart isnt actually in it: with a certain inevitability, the titular heroine of Only Angel turns out to be wait for it a devil in between the sheets. Others, nonetheless, are truly enjoyable: Carolina sets a guitar portion borrowed from Stealers Wheels Stuck in the Middle With You against a wall-eyed, Beck-like vocal and seasick strings; Woman, meanwhile, melds its Bennie and the Jets piano and Crocodile Rock patronage vocals to a gauzy, echo-drenched, faintly psychedelic sound filled with rejoinders of fretless bass to brilliant effect.
You hear the latter sound again, stripped of its Elton references, on Meet Me in the Hallway, which may be the best thing here. For one thing, on an album that understandably observes him trying on a variety of musical clothings, with varying degrees of success, its the one that best suits his voice. For another, it doesnt sound obviously indebted to anything else. More of that next time and he might genuinely do what he clearly am willing to do, and carve out a musical niche of his own in a post-One Direction world.