You wouldn’t be negligent in thinking Harry Styles lacked the flair of Britpop and classic rock pin-ups - pin-ups that have clearly enthused his own aesthetic. Possessing a strong editorial presence, a host of high-fashion sponsors keeping him on the front pages of glossy publications and billboards alike, Styles invokes the ‘style’ and swagger of a young Mick Jagger. The question remains, does he have the requisite artistic impudence, or is he merely ornamental?
‘Sign Of The Times’, the first taste of the self-tilted LP, managed to rouse the nation with its Elton John-esque power-ballad feel, ultimately belying its apocalyptic reference (and political intimation) for an end-of-relationship slow burner. Not too dissimilar from his former band’s stadium-sized anthems, it sufficed as a nice continuation for Styles, even if it suffered from a languid tone and an overly-long duration.
Yet as you press play on the rest of Styles’ formative debut, it swiftly becomes palpable that Styles has a genuine knack for synthesising distinct classic influences from the past fifty years. The record offers up little in the way of innovation but serves as a strong testimonial to 70s and 80s rock and indie. Jeff Bhasker, an esteemed producer for the likes of Hip-Hop heavyweights Jay Z and Kanye West, provides Styles with artistic license. Taking the reins as the record’s pivotal producer, he shifts from buzzy hit maker to a statelier writer and producer, adorning Styles’s pop sensibilities into something more singular. Like on opener, ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’, a slice of miasmic soft-psychedelia - Styles transporting the listener to a sprawling Nirvana of lovelorn contemplation, featuring a “gotta get better” chant that feels both triumphant and resigned. It’s easily the best song on offer, the track most suited to his wary voice.
Clocking in at just 41 minutes, the record as a whole has an easy exuberance about it, estimably Styles doesn’t take himself too seriously. Only 10 tracks long, the record is less prone to the fluff and filler that mars debuts from fledgling upstarts that want to say and do a million, different things at once. Sure, Styles meanders through genres, but he does so with a natural forward momentum, augmented by Bhasker. On ‘Woman’, featuring what could be a quip at the famed American Women Styles has navigated, he critiques their vapid nature and obsession with “romcoms on Netlfix”. It’s a sleek, funk-fuelled number summoning Prince to the fore, Bhasker offering up a subtle, hip-hop stimulus through a sampled ‘huh’ and the use of organic drums.
Throughout the record, there’s a mournful cadence to Styles’s voice and wordplay. He pines, he reminisces and he regrets, he’s actually at times a bit weepy. Both ‘Ever Since New York’ and the folky, acoustic closer ‘From The Dining Table’, show him as the submissive one in relationships, his plaintive nature amplified, the usually inscrutable Styles now more opaque and open.
The record misfires towards the middle-section with ‘Only Angel’ and ‘Kiwi’. Intended as a one-two punch of masochistic, rock swaggering, admirable in its legerdemain, it ultimately comes undone by haphazard lyricism. The latter featuring the aggressive chant of “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business” is at odds with the love-struck nature of the record as a whole, carrying little clout in the end.
‘Harry Styles’ doesn’t cotton onto the Americanised R&B-lite and trap-infused genres that his peers so readily cherry-pick from. Styles eschews trends and the conveyer belt production that pervades Radio 1 playlists. Styles also succeeds in not getting lost in a vacuum of imitative codas, the record retaining a sense of open-eyed awe at throwback rock, indie, and even some shoegaze. It’s a record that will inevitably launch a blitz of reaction videos from faceless One Direction fans, yet you get the sense that Styles himself is aiming for the affirmation of a more advanced crowd of Radio 2 listeners. With his debut, Styles manages to escape the notorious curse of former boy banders, turned leading men, creating an immersive, reference-fuelled tribute to classic rock for the millennial generation.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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