Like most Americans of a certain age, my first time experiencing Harry Styles as a solo artist was when he appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live back in April. Placed in the context of a show that’s been enjoying a revival due to their topical, often political, humor, Styles’ debut single “Sign of the Times” felt poignantly appropriate. Broadcast live across the entire country, it felt like a musical State of the Union. Bearing in mind that earlier that weekend the leaders of both the United States and North Korea were taking up headlines in the real world with nuclear threats, it adds a little weight to the sight of an impeccably dressed young man singing “Welcome to the final show/Hope you’re wearing your best clothes.” Yes, subsequent performances and photos would prove that in fact, those were not the finest his wardrobe had to offer. However, for the moment at hand, he looked better than ever, sounded wonderful, and with an album due out in a few weeks, he offered folks something finally worth anticipating.
Do not be fooled by the song’s title. If the song were to have a spiritual ancestor, it would be traced back to a different artist who passed away in 2016: David Bowie, specifically his song “Life on Mars?.” Both start softly, with piano, and continue to build to full, epic crescendos, rising and falling throughout courtesy of dynamic vocal performances. Bowie’s protagonist ponders the possibility of escaping to another planet to escape the mess we’ve made on this one, and Styles seems to agree that indeed, “we’ve got to get away from here.” That’s not to count Prince out the equation entirely though- as Styles heads toward the song’s finale, the song bears a strong resemblance to Prince’s own grand yearning for redemption, “Purple Rain.”
For those of you just tuning in- Harry Styles initially rose to superstardom as a member of the “boy band” One Direction. If fan fiction found online, and songs written by Taylor Swift are any indication, Mr. Styles was widely regarded as the most charismatic member. His band went on hiatus and other members released their solo material which was pretty much along the lines of what everyone expected. What came as a surprise was that with the arrival of his eponymous debut album, Harry Styles didn’t simply pick up where the band had left off, opting instead for more of a reinvention than a continuation. As a whole, his album is less of a party and more a reflection that comes with the following morning. His vocal talent is still present. If anything, his range is improving and perhaps showcased in a better fashion as a singer/songrwriter, focusing his art toward making some sense out of what has already happened in his young, charmed life.
Like many singer/songwriters, Harry Styles is going with the guitar as his weapon of choice, particularly the acoustic guitar, which is featured on almost every song. Conversely, three songs are completely without drums: the woozy, psychedelic hangover “Meet Me in the Hallway” that opens the album, “Sweet Creature” a pretty number that sits close to the center of the album (and seems to be an ode to someone who keeps him centered as well), and the albums closer, “From the Dining Table,” a disarmingly honest and stark track that leaves the listener no right to ask for more. There are definitely some good times found in between as well, such as the rollicking gallop of “Carolina” and the gleeful glam-stomper “Kiwi.”
If there is any trace of his previous experiences as a pop sensation , perhaps it can be found in his lyrics. After beginning his career as a teen heartthrob, one can imagine he has indeed met a few ladies. At this point in the game though, he seems far from jaded. By and large his perspective seems to go from wonder and excitement over ladies he’s met, to confusion and weary acceptance over ladies he’s lost . Nothing in the way of conquest bragging, even the bawdy “Only Angel” has a few lines detailing his commitment to her pleasure. Harry is indeed the rock star the 21st Century needs.
Years ago, Paul Simonon of the Clash had commented the band was political, but it was more often “politics with a small ’p’.” Along those lines, Harry Styles debut is indeed revolutionary with a small “r.” It’s a very organic, guitar driven album in an age of programmed beats and computerized sounds. It’s an eclectic album anathema to entertainers who work 24/7 trying to remain “on brand.” Perhaps most refreshing, its an album that retains an air of mystery long after we’ve gone past the idea of Too Much Information. Hmmm…maybe that’s refreshing with a capital “R.”