It feels as though the world is willing Harry Styles to succeed. The de facto frontman of One Direction, a man who effervesces with an easy, natural charm and an actual confirmed Nice Guy™, it’s hard not to root for him, the man who, if we are to believe some corners of the Internet, is going to be the next Bowie. With the release of his debut single, the vast, cinematic ‘Sign Of The Times’, Styles laid out the blueprint for his new sound: big-production pop-rock flavoured with more than a hint of the sixties and seventies, designed to capture the thing most elusive to former pop-groupers – credibility.
On his self-titled debut, Styles is in a mostly reflective, contemplative mood, several of the tracks here sung in hushed tones, almost whispered over delicate acoustic guitar. ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’ is a dreamy, almost ghostly, album opener, establishing the fairly dour mood which hangs over several of the songs. Styles spends much of the album addressing an absent, and unnamed, “you”, pining for a reconciliation, or at least some closure. On acoustic ballad ‘Two Ghosts’ (who some have suggested is about Taylor Swift – big surprise), Styles sings “We’re just two ghosts swimming in a glass half empty,” while in the desolate ‘From The Dining Table’, he opens with the lines “Woke up alone in this hotel room / Played with myself, where were you?” The subject of Styles’ songs is seldom present, but haunts the album nonetheless, Styles unable to keep them from his mind, evoking their image at every opportunity.
It’s at his most delicate that Styles really shines. The initially underwhelming ‘Ever Since New York’ sees Styles at his most pensive, the track a slow burner for sure, but one that really pays off after a few listens. However there are times when Styles strays into Sheeran territory, overdosing on syrupy sentimentality on ‘Sweet Creature’, a track that would be more at home on a One Direction album than Styles’ rocky debut.
When Styles isn’t channelling Nick Drake, he can be found aping the snarl of Mick Jagger on tracks such as ‘Only Angel’ and ‘Kiwi’. At times it feels like Styles is overcompensating, his attempts at being a serious rock’n’roll artist occasionally undermined by his lyrics which feel more like a pastiche of The Rolling Stones than the real deal (“She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/ Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect”). On ‘Woman’, Styles loses his way, overindulging in his fantasies of being a sixties rock star, straying too far into parody territory as he chants over husky electric guitar licks – a shame given than the rest of the track is full of lush, meandering instrumentals.
On his debut album, Styles wears his influences on his sleeve. Now able to explore and reflect his own musical taste, he is clearly relishing a little more artistic freedom outside of the confines of One Direction. And for the most part, this pays off. Harry Styles is an album that sighs with injured melancholy as well as a restless, sexual energy, Styles often tying the two together, snaking his way through tracks that aim to navigate the emotional impact of being young and heartbroken. Ultimately, though at times a little misguided, this is a confident debut from Styles, melodic and stylish, and though we have to look through layers of pastiche to find it, we get a glimpse of something raw here: Harry Styles finally finding his voice and utilising it to great effect.