When former boy-band members go solo, it rarely works out for them – unless your name is Justin Timberlake.
With his self-titled debut solo album, Harry Styles proves that while he may be capable of becoming this generation’s Justin Timberlake, he really wants to be this generation’s Mick Jagger.
With a pleasant though uneven mix of different styles (sorry, the pun stays), the former One Direction member demands to be taken seriously. And he will be.
In every song on “Harry Styles,” you can hear how seriously Styles takes this whole music thing, and you can also tell that – as with Timberlake, a natural performer – he’s actually really, really good at it. And although the jumbled influences make the album less cohesive than it could have been, it rides a wave of folk and alternative rock that works and is more interesting than other attempts at a solo breakout. And while we’re talking about Timberlake, “Sign of the Times” is totally Styles’ “Cry Me a River” (even if it’s not quite as radio-friendly).
Some songs, like “Sign of the Times,” are purely pop. And this was a smart choice for Styles: to make a political song the first single, and to make it one of the most accessible songs on the album.
The first track, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” and one of the album’s strongest, starts off a little strange. It might make you think Harry Styles has been listening to a lot of 1990s Radiohead and 2000s Bon Iver. They’re welcome inspirations, but the song eventually eases into his own sound and so does the album, which is thankfully not just him trying to sound like critically acclaimed alternative artists.
On “Sign of the Times,” Styles belts, “We never learn / We’ve been here before / Why are we always stuck and running from / The bullets, the bullets.” He probably didn’t have to confirm to The New York Times that this song is about Brexit, Black Lives Matter, and Donald Trump, therefore stepping on the lyrics’ intriguing mystery, but it solidifies his legitimacy as an individual artist, and confirms that he wants to be seen as someone who’s thoughtful and not just eye candy.
A couple of the album’s tracks have American roots in them. Both the country-influenced “Carolina” (rumored to be about Taylor Swift, which is fitting) and the folk song “Sweet Creature” could have easily been misfires coming from a young British pop star, but they stand out for how well they fit to Styles’ voice.
“Only Angel” throws you for a loop. It hits hard with a sudden Mick Jagger scream, but comes at the perfect time in the middle of the album. The rest of the tracks continue with a rock ‘n’ roll sound that keep things interesting.
Yes, most of Styles’ songs are about women and pining for them or losing them. But “Two Ghosts” captures that inexplicable feeling of falling out of love, when someone you once knew more than anyone else is now a stranger. “We’re just two ghosts swimming in a glass half-empty / trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat,” he sings. Pretty woke for a 23-year-old. Then again, he’s dated some famous women (you heard about his relationship to Taylor Swift even if you didn’t care to) whom he probably runs into at events with famous people. So he knows what this is like!
“Woman,” the penultimate track, actually kind of sounds like a Justin Timberlake song from “The 20/20 Experience” era. It might make you roll your eyes with the opening spoken line “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and then see what we find?” As annoying as the bit is, it proves that Styles still knows his audience and is easing them into his solo life.
The last track, “From the Dining Table,” ties together the alt and folk influences from earlier in the album. It’s a strong end, and it shows range that I never could have predicted Styles had. It’s a huge leap from One Direction. This track could show up on an indie-folk playlist on Spotify, and you probably wouldn’t even notice that it’s Harry Styles unless you looked at it. His next album will probably – hopefully – be an even bigger step away from accessibility for his One Direction fans and toward a brand new man.