When One Direction disbanded (or went on ‘hiatus’ to use the official party line), Louis Tomlinson was not the obvious breakout star. In a group that included the raw charisma and boy-next-door charm of Harry Styles and, formerly, the alluring mystique of bad boy Zayn Malik, Tomlinson was seldom centre of attention. But now going solo, Tomlinson is having to run the whole show by himself.
Well, almost by himself. Tomlinson’s first solo release, 2016’s ‘Just Hold On’, was a collaborative effort with DJ Steve Aoki, and his latest single, ‘Back To You’ boasts not one, but two collaborators in the shape of US singer Bebe Rexha and British DJ Digital Farm Animals. It seems that after previously having four band mates to soften the blow, Tomlinson still isn’t quite ready to enter the limelight alone.
‘Back To You’ is a more sophisticated affair than ‘Just Hold On’, which felt somewhat slapdash and rushed. Tomlinson’s new track is more subdued, opening with Rexha’s sultry vocals over a cool, electronic beat. But despite Tomlinson being credited as the main artist, it’s undoubtedly Rexha who takes the lead here. Her voice is more distinctive and interesting than Tomlinson’s pleasant but plain vocal style, Rexha overpowering Tomlinson whenever they sing in unison. That’s not to say Tomlinson’s voice is disappointing, in fact this is the strongest he’s sounded for a long time, and it seems he’s beginning to settle on a style and register that suits him. That said, he’s still not an obvious, commanding pop star in the same way as Styles or Malik.
But then it seems unfair to compare Tomlinson to his former band mates. He is neither the flowery frontman embodied by Styles nor the dark horse of Malik. But this begs the question of exactly what type of pop star Tomlinson is. ‘Back To You’ leaves us without an answer. Tomlinson flirts with mid-tempo balladry but keeps himself guarded behind Rexha’s vocal prowess and Digital Farm Animals’ anonymous production. There is still a reluctance on Tomlinson’s part to take centre stage. He remains a shy and self-effacing star, keen to play it safe, naturally cautious and risk-averse. For a pop artist, this could be dangerous.
‘Back To You’ is a tight, enjoyable pop track that plays to Tomlinson’s strengths. It’s a tentative step forward for one of the world’s most reluctant pop stars and a calculated attempt at appealing to the widest, most transatlantic, audience possible. But for all of the track’s merits, it doesn’t spotlight Tomlinson as a major pop star. When he needed a bold manifesto in the same vein as ‘Pillowtalk’ or ‘Sign Of The Times’, he delivered a solid tune that nevertheless fails to separate him from his peers. While ‘Back To You’ is certainly no flop, it hints at an underlying identity crisis that could derail Tomlinson’s solo career before it’s really begun.