Buckle up literally anyone with even a passing interest in popular culture because it is happening. The thing that we have been waiting for is happening. We knew it was coming but now it is actually happening, or about to happen, in the actual real world, very soon. Harry Styles is releasing his debut solo single, thereby saving us from misery and despair, from Brexit and Trump, and possibly saving the planet too. Or so we hope.
Having just dropped the artwork for new single ‘Sign Of The Times’ and having confirmed his first live performance on SNL on April 15th, we are now in official countdown mode for what could possibly be the biggest single of 2017. But what will ‘Sign Of The Times’ sound like? So far, there are few clues to what Styles has in store, but that hasn’t kept us from making a few guesses.
Let’s take a look at the artwork. Subdued, arty and tasteful, it suggests something low-tempo, possibly RnB influenced, maybe even a little experimental. We are confronted not with the figure of Styles head on, but with his back to us, hinting at something introspective and played-down as opposed to the in-yer-face bombast of One Direction. Of course the obvious question here is ‘How is Harry Styles still so sexy even as little more than a partially submerged, back-turned silhouette?’ but that’s a think piece for another time. What we’re seeing suggests, unsurprisingly, a new chapter in Styles’ career, something more thoughtful and mature. The artwork looks more fitting of a release by Alt-J rather than the fresh-faced, curly-haired former bakery boy we got to know during the heyday of 1D. And thank goodness for that.
So is Styles taking the path carved out by former bandmate Zayn? On his debut solo release, Zayn opted for slick R&B slow jams, manoeuvring himself firmly into the adult market with a new aesthetic built on intrigue, mystery and raw sex appeal. Styles has never excelled on any of these fronts, having always been marketed as the charming, cheeky boy-next-door, the nice guy to Zayn’s dangerous bad-boy. Styles should be cautious about indulging himself in the pretentiousness that worked so well for Zayn as it’s precisely Styles’ personable, down to earth charm that make him so popular. It’s unlikely a similar strategy would be so successful a second time around and any comparisons would likely be unflattering to Styles.
That said, if Styles were to use one of his former bandmates as a blueprint for his own career, Zayn would be a better choice than Niall Horan or Louis Tomlinson. Horan’s acoustic track ‘This Town’ was an underwhelming ballad that although not unpleasant, didn’t offer anything new or interesting. Tomlinson, meanwhile, teamed up with Steve Aoki to release the dance track ‘Just Hold On’, a weak bit of EDM that was quickly forgotten. No, Styles has to do better than this if he’s in it for the long haul.
So what of Styles’ own tastes? He has previously listed The Beatles, Freddie Mercury and Elvis Presley as his main influences, but surely no record exec in their right mind is going to let him blow his debut on a bit of 60s inspired rock’n’roll. Besides, it would sound too similar to One Direction, a comparison that Styles is surely keen to avoid. If we take a look at Styles’ first audition when he originally appeared on The X Factor back in 2010, we get a glimpse into his early tastes, before they were dictated to him by Simon Cowell et al. Styles opts to sing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, another safe choice that points to fairly middle-of-the-road tastes.
However Styles’ opinions have surely evolved a great deal in the interim, though whether his debut single will be a reflection of his own tastes or those of a megabucks label boss is a matter for debate. It wouldn’t be surprising though, if ‘Sign Of The Times’ turned out to be a slow, R&B track heavy on sap and cliche, cashing in on the current trend for slow jams while also giving Styles’ young fans something to gush over. But the early signs are nevertheless promising. The artwork is grown-up and sophisticated, hinting that Styles has got a good team around him, capable of coming up with something better than ‘This Town’, ‘Just Hold On’ or even ‘Pillowtalk’. Though let’s face it, even if ‘Sign Of The Times’ turns out to be a bit crap, surely we won’t hold it against him. Because hey, it’s Harry Styles, OK?
Read our full review of ‘Sign Of The Times’ here.