By Daniel G. Moir
Former One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles (the cute one with the long hair, as opposed to the cute one with the unusual cheeky laugh, or the cute one from Ireland, but I digress) eschews the catchy teenage synth-driven dance pop that has marked his career so far on one of the more unexpected ‑ and interesting ‑ debut albums in recent years. After hits like “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Night Changes” the album opens with the shocking “Meet Me In The Hallway.” Written with Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, the lyrics are open ended and vague enough to suggest the lament of a junkie as Styles pleads for an encounter in the hallway, requesting morphine or to “see if there is anything more to do.” A chorus of “I’ll be on the floor” concluding with a desperate “I gotta get better” indicates Styles’ willingness to perhaps journey into darker lyrical territory than previously suggested in his earlier work.
First single “Sign of the Times” is a pretty ballad that soars with aching strings and emotional guitar work serving as a backdrop to the sullen drumbeat that gives an unexpected heaviness to offset the fluttering falsetto of the pre-chorus. Unremarkable upon first listen, this is the rare song that grows in power and intensity over repeated plays revealing depth and thought not usually found in the world of “pop” music. As an introduction to his new direction, there could be no better selection.
A Santana-like groove populates the late-period Beatlesque “Carolina” along with distant, lazy “oh yeah, oh yeah” background vocals. Songs like this and the engaging “Two Ghosts” that follow, gives Styles’ debut an approach that resembles a darker album by Bread, the early 1970s Californian rock band unfortunately, mis-labeled “soft rock” for their Top 40 singles despite harder rock pieces like “Mother Truckin’” and “Freedom.”
After these more acoustic beginnings, “Only Angel” drives the album solidly into rock ‘n’ roll territory. Rough, distorted electric guitars and a pounding drumbeat provide a swaggering setting more akin to a record by the Faces than a former “boy band pop star” and show signs of Styles’ evolution as an artist. As if to drive the point home even further, the cowbell during the second chorus is completely without irony and gives the tale of lustful romance greater force that serves the song well.
Perhaps the most surprising sound is found in “Kiwi.” Resembling a younger brother of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” this defiant rocker revels in rawness and overdrive. Styles’ strong voice growls and howls throughout the melody as the recording distorts with surprising grittiness. While Ozzy’s job may not be in danger, the bold aggression of the song is refreshing and unlike anything that anyone could have expected to hear in 2017 from Styles.
“Ever Since New York” takes the catchiness of his previous work, but re-casts it in a acoustic rock format. Tuneful and efficient, this is a pop song that would fit comfortably on any early 1970s AM Radio station alongside Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line.”
As ambitious and risk-taking as this debut may be, not everything works. After Styles suggests that they “just search…and see what they might find” at the outset of “Woman” there is little there in the song’s bored, listless groove. Without a discernable melody, the song’s 4:39 running time is the album’s representative of “filler.” While neither awful nor laughable, it just fills space before moving on to the album’s more interesting conclusion.
The unusual “From the Dining Table” sounds both out of place and stunningly perfect. Recalling Elliot Smith, a simple acoustic guitar doubles the vocal melody and provides the accompaniment to Styles’ world-weary vocals. The heartbreak of seeing a former partner moving on to someone else may be nothing new, but Styles’ approach is fresh in its rawness.
Overall, this is an unexpected rock album from a former pop star that is both timeless and out of its time. In a perfect world, this would have been issued on vinyl in 1972 with several tracks remembered as “classic rock” hits from a forgotten summer. For an artist desiring to reshape himself, this debut gives evidence that the depth of Harry Styles is just beginning to be fully understood by the music-loving public. Not perfect, but a triumph nevertheless.
Bottom Line: A surprisingly unexpected change of direction in his debut, Harry Styles forgoes the artificial to create a record that is warm, real, and rocking.
Album Grade: B
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin.
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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