FIRST review: Harry Styles, the latest member of UK band One Direction to strike out on his own, has gone for a different vibe on his solo debut album.
Harry Styles (Sony)
RELAX, it’s really good. Team Harry have done this smartly, navigating Styles away from pretty much everything that’s working right now in modern pop and right back to the singer/songwriter world of the mid ‘70s — twenty years before he was born. They’ve hooked him up a band of real, credible musicians (not the latest hitmakers for hire) and are aiming for authentic to erase the memories of being manufactured. Here’s your track-by-track guide to his self-titled debut that’s already No. 1 on iTunes.
MEET ME IN THE HALLWAY
THIS sets the intentions clear from the get-go — hippy Harry. Styles sounds more like ‘70s folk icon Nick Drake (or Jeff Buckley or Matt Corby for the younger listeners) than a boy band graduate. It’s a tender, retro ballad where producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Mark Ronson) weaves his trademark sonic magic. There’s twisted guitar plucking that almost sound out of tune before everything turns a bit psychedelic — there’s even touches of Crowded House’s Four Seasons In One Day in there. A lovely, intimate introduction to Harry 2.0 — complete with some curious opiate references designed to put the internet into a spin.
Key lyric: “I just left your bedroom, give me some morphine, is there any more to do? We don’t talk about it, it’s something we don’t do, ‘cause once you go without it nothing else will do.”
SIGN OF THE TIMES
YOU already know this one. The video didn’t quite live up to the excitement of hearing what direction he was taking. Listen to Suede’s The Wild Onesto add to the list of songs the guitars in this sound like. Ten points for taking such a major musical risk and getting actual choruses and melodies back on the radio Hazza.
OK now it’s a party, not a pity party. This has a low-key, laid-back stonerfunk vibe — think early Beck — and if he hadn’t come from the biggest boy band in the world there’d be indie lovers frothing over this. There’s lots of ‘la la las’, cowbell and a real West Coast LA feel, and the song ends with a warm bath of strings and riffs — watch for more people pointing out the number of songs this one recalls.
Key lyric: “I met her once and wrote a song about her. I wanna scream, yeah I want to shout it out and I hope she hears me now.”
THIS is the one people are claiming is about Taylor Swift — the CSI Haylor digital detectives pointing to Harry singing about red lips, blue eyes and shirts and how it overlaps with those same things mentioned in Style. That’s more evidence than a lot of online fan fiction to be honest. Taylor’s always taken a You’re So Vain approach to her song subjects and Harry is taking being a gentlemen about not explaining the people he wrote his solo songs about, so theorise away. The fact it’s basically a country song could be more ammunition if you need it. This is his Eagles moment, ‘70s AM Nashville twangpop. Good work. Interestingly one of the writers is Julien Benetta, who co-wrote Perfect, the 1D song many also assume was about Swifty, as well as Stockholm Syndrome, the first taste that Harry was 1D’s lyrical square peg.
Key lyric: “We’re not who we used to be, we’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.”
YOU probably know this one too. The one that sounds a bit like a dyslexic version of the Beatles’ Blackbird. If you’re going to take musical inspiration from a song, that’s a pretty good start.
Key lyric: “We started two hearts in one home, it’s hard when we argue, we’re both stubborn I know.”
HARRY Styles looks like a young Mick Jagger. Now he officially sounds like early Mick. With vintage Keith Richards backing him. After a moody intro, this is all rock swagger and taps directly into Hazza’s pantsman reputation. Harry spies will notice there’s another reference to meeting in the hallway — is it about the good times with the same lady as the first song before it all went wrong? The Stonesy chorus is a cracker, complete with opportunities for Mick-style handclapping and a very Stones-style soulful finishing note.
Key lyric: Take your pick — “Open up your eyes shut your mouth and see that I’m still the only one that’s been in love with me. I’m just happy getting you stuck in-between my teeth … Broke a finger knocking on your bedroom door … couldn’t take you home to mother in a skirt that short but I think that’s what I like about it … it turns out she’s a devil in between the sheets.”
MORE rock. It seems to be the tale of a chain-smoking, liquor-drinking lady with a “bit of intellect” throwing Billie Jean style paternity threats around. What’s this bit about though — “It’s New York baby always jacked up, Holland Tunnel for a nose always backed up” followed by a big sniff? Hmm. They’re aiming for Iggy Pop/Ramones style ragged punked-up rock romp but it sounds more like a Robbie Williams album track you’d probably skip.
Key lyric: “I think she said I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business … she sits beside me like a silhouette, hard candy dripping on me til my feet are wet, now she’s all over me it’s like I paid for it, I’m gonna pay for this.”
EVER SINCE NEW YORK
The other song Harry played on SNL. More Taylor Swift conspiracy theories. The album version sounds better than the TV version. Again, more flashes to the harmonies of the Eagles — he’s no stranger to having a bunch of dudes singing with him, this time they’re relatively anonymous. But when you’ve come from a band who rush-recorded songs strategically-designed to be radio hits it must be nice to take a slight left turn.
Key lyric: “I’ve been praying I never did before, understand I’m talking to the walls, I’ve been praying ever since New York.”
Who’s the American saying “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we find?” at the start? Without the Netflix reference, this song about a jealous guy sounds like the type of song Elton John was writing during the Bennie and the Jets era. All wonky, bar-room piano and again more re-positioning Harry as ‘70s singer/songwriter rather than modern pop icon. What’s with that sound like honking duck calls from 2.40 minutes onwards? More Haylor intel — he sings “promises are broken like a stitch is” — another link to the accident that plays out in Out Of the Woods?
Key lyric: “I hope you can see the shape I’m in while he’s touching your skin. He’s right where I should be but you’re making me bleed. This thing upon me, howls like a beast, you flower, you feast.”
FROM THE DINING TABLE
ENDING as we began, in intimate mode. Very intimate, considering the lyrics. His hushed vocals sound like he’s whispering into your ear, which was probably the idea. It also balances out the player aspect to the lyric “Woke up the girl who looked just like you, I almost said your name.” Has another Beatle-y string flourish thrown in for good measure and Harry notes “maybe one day you’ll call me and say you’re sorry too.” Gauntlet thrown down.
Key lyric: “woke up alone in this hotel room, played with myself where were you? Fell back to sleep, I got drunk by noon, I’ve never felt less cool. Even my phone misses your call.”
THIS is a very smart move. Styles HQ knew the world was waiting to see what Harry would do, and he’s moved away from all his bandmates (not you, Zayn) with an interesting and relatively experimental record. Like George Michael (he’s borrowed the ‘Don’t put your face on the cover’ idea), Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake before him, Harry’s rewriting the blueprint for life after a boy band. This is the best pop album he’s been involved with since 1989.
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Originally published as Harry Styles’ debut album reviewed