You’ve got to have faith. Or at least a Faith. Ever since George Michael achieved the holy grail of smoothly transitioning from teen pop idol to credible singer/songwriter, all manufactured pop stars have eyed the late superstar’s model as a path to success. For some it’s worked, but for the vast majority of former boybanders, it’s not been a pretty journey.
So there’s an awful lot riding on Harry Styles‘ debut solo album. Although not the first member of One Direction to fly solo – that was of course Zayn – he’s certainly the most famous – and every step of the PR campaign that accompanies this album goes to great lengths to ensure that you know this album is a Very Big Deal indeed. There’s been daily debates in even the broadsheet press as to whether Styles is “the new David Bowie“, and frenzied arguments about how the young lad who once told Matt Cardle to “imagine how much pussy you’re going to get” is now this country’s most foremost feminist icon. Even film director Cameron Crowe penned a slavishly adoring profile of Styles for Rolling Stone, surely the mark of a Serious Rock Artiste.
None of this is Styles’ fault of course – he, after all, seems to have the endearing attitude that this pop star business is just a bit of a laugh – but you can’t help but wonder whether his record company are setting him up for something of a fall. Because Harry Styles, as he’d no doubt be the first to confirm, is not the new David Bowie. Nor is he the new John Lennon, the new Lou Reed, the new Prince or whoever else he’s been breathlessly compared to in the pre-release hyperbolic hullabaloo.
Those figures were revolutionary, who produced music the likes of which nobody had heard before. So, if you come to Styles’ debut expecting this, you’re inevitably going to be disappointed. He does a pretty damn good impression of them to be fair, and there’s an awful lot to enjoy, but if you’ve fallen for the hype (or aren’t a full on Directioner), then adjust your expectations accordingly. There are plenty of signs though that, given time, Styles could carve out quite a niche for himself in the confessional singer/songwriter bracket.
The nods to those classic singer/songwriter types are there from the off. Opener Meet Me In The Hallway apes Space Oddity’s slow-burning introduction, while Woman doesn’t so much steal the piano riff from Benny & The Jets as perform a full-on heist on it. The big, sweeping ballad Sign Of The Times even appropriates one of Prince’s most famous titles (although, wisely, it’s not a cover version). All of these are fine, if sometimes lacking in personality. The latter in particular is a bit too earnest and overlong, which makes it a surprising choice for a first single.
Styles had a hand in writing every track on the album, and there’s a surprising amount of homage paid to classic FM rock – he’s at his best when he cuts loose and has some fun, as on the raucous rocker Kiwi (guaranteed to spark a million headlines with its chorus of “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business”, especially when Styles’ new girlfriend is a model from New Zealand) or when he’s being all wistful and contemplative. The latter is exemplified by the album’s standout track, the yearning, bittersweet Ever Since New York which has more than a hint of prime Fleetwood Mac. It’s this song that indicates that Styles really does have some longevity, a track almost overflowing with regret and sadness.
There’s more reflection on lost love on Two Ghosts, a genuinely affecting tale of former lovers meeting up and, as one of the song’s most memorable lines puts it, “trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat”. There’s even an early Ryan Adams or Sufjan Stevens vibe to the closing, beautifully sparse From The Dining Table, even if it does conjure up the image of Harry indulging in a spot of sad masturbation (“I played with myself, where were you?”).
Occasionally, as on Carolina or Only Angel, it dips into bland pastiche, but generally this is a fine solo effort from, lest we forget, one of the most famous twentysomethings on the planet. He’s not the new Bowie, or anywhere near it, but as the latest step in rebranding Styles for a brand new audience, it will do just fine.