Harry Styles. When I hear that name, the boy band One Direction and their big success on the pop charts come to mind. I’m largely disconnected from their music, and couldn’t name five songs if I tried. In fact, I had no knowledge of his debut album’s existence until it was released a few weeks ago. So, I’m pleasantly surprised to write that this is a great pop album.
Some of Styles sounds decades old. Styles’ influences are far from the boy band material he used to perform. The album relies heavily on soft guitar riffs and steady drums, complementing Styles’ smooth vocals for a very chill vibe. Yes, this album plays well. It’s readily accessible and doesn’t reach for the stars. At the same time, it’s a bold move for Styles, given the anticipation from his young base of One Direction fans and cynicism of others like yours truly.
Again, the album is littered with influences far removed from Styles’ previous work. Leading off is the soft “Meet Me in the Hallway,” which prominently features a jangly guitar, and feels akin to more celebrated artists like Beck, Elliott Smith, and Sufjan Stevens. Of course, “Sign of the Times” is the big one, appropriately the lead single. This has Billy Joel written all over it, as it’s a soaring pop ballad that feels larger than life, complete with gorgeous piano accompaniment. Meanwhile, the bouncy rhythm of “Carolina” feels very Harry Nilsson, and it’s a welcome addition. Modern pop often looks backwards, particularly in electronic sounds, but this is a most refreshing nod to yesteryear. “Kiwi,” sure to be a fan favorite, is a no-holds-barred, straightforward rock howler. If Styles were to make a record like The Black Keys, it might sound like this. But Styles and his beautiful vocals make their own way through these sounds, and get some of the best songs out of them.
The album also includes tracks that are generally more dialed down. “Two Ghosts” is a sweet little tune that features a standout line: “We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me/Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.” While “Sweet Creature” and “From the Dining Table” – note the great line “Even my phone misses your call, by the way” – are largely stripped-down songs that would arguably benefit from the loss of the backing vocals, the intro to “Only Angels,” one of the weaker tracks, could be on almost any current alternative album. In addition, the production on “Woman” is a bit cluttered, yet it’s completely infectious, albeit a bit strained in the songwriting department. But one of the finest tracks is “Ever Since New York,” which sounds like a lost single from the early 2000s. Its chorus soars with “Oh, tell me something I don’t already know.” Not the greatest line on the album, but it works for this song. Overall, Styles hits more than he misses, and every song goes down smoothly.
Harry Styles took a risk here. His debut both plays it safe in terms of songwriting and scope, but also goes to great lengths to put himself out there. Going solo and finding his own musical identity seems daunting, and Styles appears up to the challenge. What this album lacks in innovation it makes up for with the bravery to go beyond the glossy arena pop LP that could have been. It defies expectations, and the room for growth is only encouraging, given this is his first solo outing. Styles might well be on his way to becoming an even bigger star, but he’s also a budding pop singer-songwriter with a new fan. Of course, One Direction fans shouldn’t be disappointed with his efforts, but hopefully Harry Styles attracts other listeners too. It’s one of the best pop albums of the year.
Harry Styles is available everywhere, including iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.