This post-One Direction debut is a melange of musical homages that fails to reach the heights of Styles idols. But one thing it isnt is dull
Whatever else you may have made of them, you could never accuse One Direction of not following the script. Over the course of their career, they did everything boybands are supposed to do sell millions of records, tire of being objects of pre-pubescent desire, ride out tabloid scandal when blurry photos appear of one or more members smoking a joint, insist they will continue when a loose cannon member announces his departure, then split up a year later. Now, the bands former members find themselves doing the things former members of boybands always do: releasing pop R&B with arty inclinations, dabbling in dance music, or attempting to reinvent themselves as earnest acoustic singer-songwriters.
Harry Styles may have chosen the trickiest path of all. His debut album, Harry Styles, ticks every box on the Take Me Seriously checklist. Team of triple-tested songwriting help assembled, including platinum-plated hitmaker and former alt-rock artist? Tick: the credits include Uptown Funk co-author Jeff Bhasker and one-time indie singer-songwriter turned Florence + the Machine collaborator Tom Kid Harpoon Hull. Longest and ostensibly least commercial track released as debut single-cum-warning shot? Tick: the doleful six-minute-long ballad Sign of the Times. Songs that knowingly reference classic rock, including early-70s Elton John (Woman), the Beatles Blackbird (Sweet), U2 circa The Joshua Tree (Ever Since New York) and the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers (Only Angel)? Tick. Slightly self-conscious stabs at sonic experimentation? Tick, not least a rhythm track punctuated by what sounds like one of those tin toys that moos like a cow when you turn it over being repeatedly inverted. Lyrics that attempt to address topics more grownup than dancing all night to the best song ever? Tick, up to and including the closing From the Dining Table, a bit of fingerpicked folk that opens with the diverting image of Harry Styles assuaging his loneliness by and in the forthright spirit of the song itself, let us not mince words having a wank.
In America at least, this series of manoeuvres already appears to have borne fruit. Styles is on the cover of Rolling Stone, the recipient of an extremely serious profile by Cameron Crowe, august music journalist, film director and, it would appear, stranger to the concept of Laying It On A Bit Thick: over the course of 6,000 words, he variously compares Styless voice to that of Rod Stewart in his prime, his backing band to the Help!-era Beatles, and the studio in Jamaica where much of the album was cut to Big Pink, the Woodstock house where Bob Dylan and the Band changed the course of rock music in 1967.
Without wishing to pooh-pooh the writer-director of Almost Famous and Jerry Maguires musical judgment, anyone who buys Harry Styless solo debut in the belief that its going to sound like a cross between Every Picture Tells a Story, Help! and The Basement Tapes may find themselves slightly disappointed. That in itself doesnt mean that its a bad album, merely that some people should calm down a bit in their efforts to convince the public that its all right to listen to music made by a one-time manufactured pop idol.
The debut largely avoids the biggest pitfall awaiting the boyband member keen to shed his old image, the belief that maturity is somehow signified by making music exclusively in shades of beige: only the dreary Two Ghosts sounds as if it was tailor-made to fit in between the factoids on Steve Wrights afternoon show. Styles is remarkably good as a confessional singer-songwriter, notwithstanding the sneaking feeling that spending his entire adult life as a member of a hugely successful boyband hasnt left him with a great deal to confess, beyond the fact that being trapped in hotel rooms is boring and having it off with an inexhaustible supply of attractive and occasionally famous ladies isnt quite as efficacious a cure for existential ennui as one might have hoped. Theres an affecting tenderness and emotional punch about the Nilsson-ish Sign of the Times and if you can get past the opening image of him, as he puts it, playing with myself From the Dining Table.
Not all the albums musical homages work: Styles is desperately ill-equipped for the rocknroll raunch of Only Angel and the glammy Kiwi. Alas, his voice sounds no more like Rod Stewart than it does Rod Hull, while the lyrics are a torrent of hoary pub-band cliches that suggest his heart isnt really in it: with a certain inevitability, the titular heroine of Only Angel turns out to be wait for it a devil in between the sheets. Others, however, are really enjoyable: Carolina sets a guitar part borrowed from Stealers Wheels Stuck in the Middle With You against a wall-eyed, Beck-like vocal and seasick strings; Woman, meanwhile, melds its Bennie and the Jets piano and Crocodile Rock backing vocals to a gauzy, echo-drenched, faintly psychedelic sound filled with retorts of fretless bass to brilliant effect.
You hear the latter sound again, stripped of its Elton references, on Meet Me in the Hallway, which may be the best thing here. For one thing, on an album that understandably finds him trying on a variety of musical costumes, with varying degrees of success, its the one that best suits his voice. For another, it doesnt sound obviously indebted to anything else. More of that next time and he might genuinely do what he clearly wants to do, and carve out a musical niche of his own in a post-One Direction world.