Harry Styles, “Harry Styles” (Columbia)
The first rule about being in a successful boy band is understanding that one day you will no longer be in a successful boy band. The baggage of that life will be removed, but so will the perks. If, underneath all that, you have a beating heart, a robust sense of self and a modicum of taste, the potential for growth is great. So in a way, a boy band star’s first solo album is merely a salvo in the fight to not be defined by yesterday.
Even though One Direction was the boy band that began to dismantle the norms of the form, it was still the biggest one of the past decade. And so the self-titled solo debut of Styles, one of its two breakout stars — the other being Zayn Malik — is both an answer to his past and a template for his future. Malik, who makes mildly sludgy pop-R&B, got to market first, and also seems at least tangentially interested in the market. Styles would like to be excluded from that narrative.
So goes this sometimes great, sometimes foggy album, which is almost bold in its resistance to contemporary pop music aesthetics. Instead, it’s steeped in the singer-songwriter music of the late 1960s and 1970s, and in moments, in the flamboyant harder rock of the late 1970s and 1980s.
One Direction had some use for these ideas — it was always the most rock-minded of boy bands, which are usually more preoccupied with rhythm. But Styles’ deep dive into this territory is both uncharted and effective. He’s a strong singer (within a narrow range) and has a general air of exhaustion in his tone.
Styles is at his best when he’s at his least involved. “Sweet Creature,” one of this album’s highlights, is full of gentle Café Wha? guitar and straightforwardly earnest singing. Similarly, “From the Dining Table” has the barest guitar, though here Styles’ vocals are subjected to a hollowing effect that makes him sound disconsolate. What’s got him so down? Why, the wages of post-fame, of course.
Exhausted and spent: This is some life. First post-boy-band albums are also where symbols of maturity are dangled: Styles would like you to know he has been debauched, or something like it. The most persuasively sinful moments are on the opener, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” another soft musical moment that doesn’t bother to find the hope that’s on the other side of decay. These narcotic singer-songwriter gestures are presumably an excavation of Styles’ own personal taste, but it also certainly helps that, by design, his music can’t be directly compared to anything his bandmates have done or will do. But his peers aren’t his heroes, either.
At worst, Styles runs the risk of being unfashionable. There are few paths less attractive in 2017 than that of guitar troubadour working in the pop mainstream. But Styles doesn’t appear troubled by that challenge, nor is he at the vanguard of a classic rock revival. Instead, he is a conscientious objector — to the shadow cast by his old life, to the comparisons to his old peers, to the gleam of modern pop, to all of it.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
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