Surprisingly, the self titled solo debut from ex-One Direction star Harry Styles is far more impressive than one would expect. Styles proved himself as a successful vocalist and performer with One Direction, but whether that success would translate to solo success was another question. While those contemporary pop leanings and radio friendliness is still present here, Styles’ debut owes far more to classic sixties pop and seventies soft rock ballads than the boy band power pop of his former group. It might not be groundbreaking, and there’s little in the way of innovation regarding his take on old school sounds, but it’s still a surprisingly refined and refreshing project.
Opening track Meet Me in the Hallway is a delicate, folksy and restrained start to the album; it’s minimal, lingering on ambience and a light guitar line, but it’s a really satisfying track. There isn’t much going on in the first place, but the hook simply brings everything together. The folkier tracks here, like Ever Since New York and Two Ghosts, might be lethargic and chorus centered, but they’re well put together nonetheless, earning equal merit for both captivating songwriting as well as pop appeal. Closing track From the Dining Table is Styles’ most successful venture into this kind of sound; it’s a lowkey yet endlessly intimate finale to the album, with a sudden string surge in the middle of the track drawing on Bon Iver’s lush country soul.
Lead single Sign of the Times is a very full and powerful soft rock ballad, but its reliance on cliches of the genre cripples its emotional potential; simply put, it sounds too much like something you’ve heard many times before. Forays into heavier indie rock stylings on tracks like Kiwi or Only Angel bear similar issues. These are by no means bad tracks, but it sounds like Styles has simply dipped into his record collection and taken the fundamental cues from his favourite records. This album does quiet better – the first minute of Only Angel is an incredible ambient buildup to a lackluster song that ultimately does not deliver.
Carolina draws from all the basics of psychedelic pop, thick with lush vocal lines and dynamic bass lines while still providing a softer and more radio friendly homage to this style than you’d find on something like Beck’s Midnite Vultures. It’s a fun, funky, and captivating track, but knowing that you’ve heard all these same ideas before might linger at the back of your conscience. Piano driven rock ballad Woman suffers from the same curse; a great track rooted in a very, very evident sense of nostalgia. The guitars here drift in and out effortlessly, while Styles’ vocal performances glide atop this instrumental, coalescing so well with this song and so many others that share a similar vibe. But when these odes to classic rock are only a step above mediocre, it sometimes feel like a lie to listen to.
Harry Styles’ solo debut is far from awful – in fact, it’s miles ahead of anything else One Direction have ever put out as a group – but this debut really suffers from a sense of having been heard before. Fundamentally, Harry Styles is a bunch of rehashed ideas, albeit rehashed ideas wrapped up in a very refined and well produced box.