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Harry Styles ‘Harry Styles’ – Review

16 May

Harry Styles is easy to root for. Whether he’s dating his way through Hollywood, buying pizzas for the homeless, modelling for fashion mags or staring in a big budget war movie – everything he does, he does with effortless cool. He’s one of the more loveable heart-throbs of his or any other generation, as countless teenage fans will attest to. But all that is rendered insignificant if the music doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This debut, self titled album will be the true test of whether Styles has a shot at longevity and serious artistic integrity.

In the same way that One Direction diverted from the boy band cliches of matching outfits, lip synching and dance routines, they have also dispensed with break up tropes as well. When going solo, artists have typically trod one of two paths; the one pioneered by Robbie Williams, of the disgruntled bad boy wishing to unleash their inner rock star via unkempt power ballads; or the one created by Justin Timberlake, that of the formally angelic frontman wishing to unleash their inner sex God via slinky r&b. Not 1D though. For a start nobody, except the rather tiresome Zayn (who released a brooding and hook-averse album last year), seems bitter or unhappy with the One Direction brand. Secondly, each member seems intent on following their own path, not some stereotypical idea of what a pop star should do. Niall has hooked up with indier-than-thou singer songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr for a couple of smooth, acoustic jams that are pitched more for the mums than directioners themselves. Louis seems to be going in an EDM direction whilst, in the most unlikely turn of events, Liam Is readying a migos inspired trap album. Whatever the others get up to, there is unlikely to be any crossover with ‘Harry Styles’.

On his debut album, Styles primarily utilises simple, unfussy arrangements to highlight and compliment his soulful vocals. It’s remarkable how thoroughly he has progressed since enthusiastically but unconvincingly belting out ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ on an X Factor audition seven years ago. His range is impressive, whether tackling the falsetto chorus of ‘Sign of the Time’, the Jagger-isms of ‘Kiwi’ or the breathy croon of ‘From the Dining Table’. This voice is undoubtedly the star here but that effortless, timeless cool I described earlier is also important. Harry, who was in an Arctic Monkeys influenced school band when he auditioned for X Factor, grew up in an era of British music when the guitar, black skinny jeans, Chelsea boots and thoughtful, observational lyrics were in vogue. These are traits that he’s admirably stayed true to, even as they have fallen dramatically out of fashion. Because of this, ‘Harry Styles’ has the benefit of being so out of step with the times that it may actually sound new and unfamiliar to a young audience.

Considering that lead single ‘Sign of the Times’ had all the subtlety of Be Here Now era Oasis, it’s surprising how understated the other songs on ‘Harry Styles’ are. The album opens softly, with an acoustic balled called ‘Meet me in he Hallway’, which features only vaguely proggy background noises as accompaniment to Harry and a guitar. The album ends on a similarly sparse note, with ‘From the Dining Table’, a laid back moment of unguarded vulnerability where Harry pines ‘maybe one day you’ll call me, and tell me you’re sorry too…but you never do.’ ‘From the Dining Table’ is one highlight, as is ‘Two Ghosts’, which coyly references Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ in both its lyrics and gorgeously heartbreaking vocals. The gentle percussion, and Harry’s fondness for warm, memorable melodies, suggests that he has less in common with a young David Bowie (as the pre-release hype hinted) and more in common with vintage Cat Stevens. No bad thing.

But before we get ahead of ourselves (and Cameron Crowe’s frequent references to the likes of Bowie, Queen, Beatles and Rod Stewart, in his recent Rolling Stone cover feature, was definitely that) we do need to remember that Harry Styles is still a young man of 23, and the sessions for ‘Harry Styles’ marked his first sustained stab at songwriting (helped, it should be noted, by seasoned pros like Kid Harpoon and Jeff Bhasker). That inexperience reveals itself in the flimsy choruses at the centre of ‘Only Angel’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Carolina’, not to mention the juvenile lyrics that will cause sensitive eyebrows to raise. It’s a miracle that in these hyper-aware times, nobody at Columbia warned Harry that opening one song by telling the female subject to ‘open your eyes and shut your mouth’ before telling her he couldn’t take her home to his mother ‘in a dress that short’ might not be the best idea. This is only one example of too many lyrical mis-fires to excuse.

It’s also exemplified in the way he liberally borrows from classic songwriting. The best tracks here are the ones where you can sense an influence, without being bashed over the head by it. The Beatles inspired riff and backing vocals on ‘Carolina’ are cute but the Blackbird inspired ‘Sweet Creature’ is a little too knowing for its own good. The Coldplay-esque melody of ‘Ever Since New York’ is moving but that central guitar figure is photoshopped directly from Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’. Then there’s the ‘Beenie and the Jets’ piano chords of ‘Woman’ and, perhaps most blatantly of all, the mimicking of ‘Amy’ by Ryan Adams – here repurposed as ‘From the Dining Table’, in which chords, melody, mood and even the prominent double tracked vocal technique are lifted wholesale (in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it’s my favourite track on the record).

‘Harry Styles’ is a flawed album, but show me a debut that isn’t. All these faults betray an undiluted enthusiasm and wonderment for the possibilities of Rock n Roll, glimpsed by a young man obviously unencumbered by any post-modern cynicism or hunger for a contemporary notion of trendiness (take note Zayn, Justin Beiber and Drake). We’ve all heard that the guitar is dead, well nobody told that to Harry Styles. (Without wishing to fall victim to Rolling Stone level overstatement) He may be an unlikely saviour but I think Styles has just beamed a smart and vibrant pop-rock album into millions of homes around the world. Who knows who’s listening, ready to pick up the baton. So yes, Harry has certainly passed the musical part of the test – and of course, he remains effortlessly cool and easy to root for.

7/10

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