On his magpie solo debut, the former One Direction frontman Harry Styles serves up a series of 70’s rock poses that occasionally hit the spot but ultimately fail to convince.
Musicians seeking to establish themselves in their own right after enjoying massive success in a hugely popular pop band are confronted by a myriad of challenges; namely, do they strike out with a newer, more experimental sound that might captivate a wider audience but alienate the existing fan base, or do they churn out a tentative, safer product that falls between both camps? In most cases, such artists launching their solo careers plump for the latter option, which tends to make for a middle-of-the-road listen that’s at best stodgy and half-hearted, at worst painfully forgettable and mediocre.
The world’s been keen to hear where 1D’s roguish, rumple-haired lead singer Harry Styles’s muse would take him ever since the group folded some eighteen months ago. On his self-titled solo venture, Styles has at least avoided the path of least resistance; there is no hedging of bets, no attempt to mimick the crowd-pleasing, radio-friendly mixture of stadium ballast and cosy balladry patented by Robbie Williams.
In fact, the first thing to notice about ‘Harry Styles’ is its lack of resemblance to the music of his parent band and the sounds of 2017. Anchored by seasoned executive producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and The Rolling Stones), this album sees Styles and his swaggering LA band adopting a pick’n’mix, Spotify playlist approach and trying on a variety of guises from the vintage years of rock’n’roll – glam rock, yacht-rock, country-boogie, blues-rock, Bowie, Stealers Wheel, Elton John, The Stones, ‘White Album’ – with varying results.
It must be said that Styles demonstrates a hitherto hidden versatility and depth in the vocal department throughout, an impressive ability to switch between a creamy falsetto and throaty yelp that threaten to disguise his limitations as a lyric writer; a succession of jaded, unreconstructed gender archetypes and insipid are to the fore here, most notably on ‘Only Angel’ , ‘Kiwi’ and ‘Carolina’.
However, when it works, this cherry-picking, magpie sensibility occasionally lifts the music beyond mere colourless pastiche, witness the spooked campfire restraint of the ‘Blackbird’-aping folk pastoral, ‘Sweet Creature’, and the lovely, Nilsson-flecked balladry of ‘From The Dining Table’. The lead single, ‘Sign Of The Times’, achieves a soaring, anthemic lift-off that transcends the sum of its Bowie and Queen fixations and the keenly melodic ‘Meet Me in the Hallway’ is actually a lovelorn gem of a song pitched somewhere between Fleet Foxes, Elliott Smith and Cat Stevens.
It’s open to debate as to whether this record will launch Harry Styles into a new stratosphere beyond his teen demographic, but he deserves kudos for attempting something that’s clearly not aiming for the sanitised middle ground. It’s as light as a feather but possesses a certain ragged, sketchy charm: ‘Harry Styles’ is neither as bad as I was expecting nor as shape-shifting as the pre-release hype would have it.