A big deal on every level, his third solo album is a heavyweight pop release that feels understated and lightweight
Is Harry Styles the biggest pop star on the planet right now? What even constitutes a pop star in 2022? What metrics do you use to try to quantify this? Indeed, the whole entire notion of ‘bigness’ is more amorphous and vague than ever. Harry’s House is the third solo album by Styles, now 28. It raises more than a few of these existential pop questions, positioning as both a hugely melodic and accessible pop record, and a resolutely anti-pop record. Impossible to pin down, Styles is a layered pop icon who manages to do the unexpected by force of character and persona, while making very traditional music rooted in rock and pop values and aesthetics.
Styles has always been a pop and rock classicist who rejects any notion of pop futurism and the widescreen experimental possibilities and sounds offered by cutting edge producers. Instead he luxuriates in his own distinct musical passions, primarily the rock and pop of the peak album age of the ’70s. His massively successful group One Direction shared a similar aesthetic, trading in new wavey rock sounds and dynamics more akin to huge anthemic rock bands like Oasis.
Launching his solo career in 2017 with the perfectly realised David Bowie/Beatles pastiche single Sign Of The Times, it was clear that Styles wanted to position himself above the pop rat race and embrace being a serious and important artist. The debut album was all good and proficient, but lacking in fun and sparkle. A couple of years later on his second album Fine Line, Harry brought back the pizzaz, powered by a string of playful and exuberant singles like Watermelon Sugar and Adore You that suggested maybe he could be more George Michael than George Harrison. Harry’s House feels like a midpoint between those two records.
As the title suggests it’s a record that preaches inclusivity and community: anyone is welcome in Harry’s house. His songwriting, in conjunction with longtime partners Kid Harpoon, Tyler Johnson and Mitch Rowland, has taken another step up. He bares his soul and paints vivid, intricate vignettes of scenes and situations of daily life and the emotions felt by someone removing themselves from the hyper-social celebrity world in favour of more quiet reflection and exuberant organic joy. At times, it can be just a little cringey: “You’d be the spoon, dip you in honey so I could be sticking to you,” he croons on the otherwise gorgeous Daylight. But mostly it’s evocative and very sweet, for example on the open hearted embrace of Matilda: “You don’t have to be sorry for leaving and growing up,” he sings in what could be a metaphor for his own career.
Three albums in, Styles now carries himself and his music with the air of someone who is supremely confident and has the freedom to indulge in all their own creative fantasies. To that extent that album is a run through of different styles and sounds filtered through Styles’s classic pop values. There’s the rock and soul R&B of Hall & Oates on Late Night Talking, and the oddball lounge pop of opening track Music For A Sushi Restaurant, which contains some wonderfully fun scat style jazzy singing, offering a tantalising glimpse of Styles at his most playful – something that we could have done with more of as the album progresses.
Harry’s House is a heavyweight pop release that feels understated and lightweight. It threatens to give everything about Styles away and strip back his starkest emotions, but leaves it still ever so slightly cloaked in mystery. We’re closer than ever before to truly understanding Styles the person, but he still keeps us ever so slightly at arm’s length. Styles, the artist, the pop auteur, though is far more clear. This record lacks some of the really big euphoric moments of his seismic second album. Number 1 single As It Was is a killer hook made for TikTok, but its bedroom pop stylings seem diminished in comparison, even if it makes up for it in its coherence and its emphasis on ‘vibes’, which complement Styles’ reflective and warm songs. Also, it should be said his voice and delivery is perfectly on point here. He sounds completely relaxed and at one with himself.
There’s just something lacking though, a reticence to truly break the mould and shake things up musically in the same way he does through his public persona and progressive and inclusive values. Yet ultimately, despite the conservative nature of some of his songs, Harry Styles’s position as a modern pop icon and positive force for good is undimmed and is if anything stronger than ever. A big deal on every level.