In the weeks of promotional press leading up to his debut solo record, I’ve grown fascinated with the void that is Harry Styles. When presented with any opportunity to express an opinion, whether, with Rolling Stone or The New York Times, Styles has answered with a hard “Pass.” How does he feel about his friend and former colleague Zayn Malik effectively disowning the music they made together? Just fine, thanks. What sorts of things is he talking about on a song boldly titled “Sign of the Times?”… Everything? Whether he’s been trained by a PR team or has a natural talent for letting questions roll off him like water, Harry Styles, the person, seems thoroughly disinterested in being interesting.
That’s a quality that seems easy knock, but it may be a much smarter move than it first appears. In failing—or rather, declining—to articulate a differentiated self, Styles is bucking the usual post-boy-band playbook. Zayn Malik and Joe Jonas have stuck to the strategy Justin Timberlake set as the gold standard with FutureSex/LoveSounds, presenting a new emotionally (read: sexually) mature identity. Styles, on the other hand, has continued to serve the base, defending teenage girls to Rolling Stone and holding close to the public persona he’s had throughout his career.
The result of this undoubtedly market-tested approach is a shift away from Harry Styles the person towards Harry Styles the album. It’s a strategic bid to be viewed as a serious artist, one that mostly succeeds.
Harry Styles is an enjoyable homage to the golden era of classic rock and the soft ballads of the 70s. There’s a borrowed nostalgia at the heart of this record, and yet Styles and his band manage to make it feel authentic. Channeling the balladry of Harry Nillson at one turn and the swagger of Aerosmith at the next, Styles wears the styles of your aunt’s favorite bands as well as he wears that smashing pink suit.
Album standout “Carolina” makes a compelling case for the frequent comparisons between Styles and Mick Jagger. A tropical rhythm moves “Honky Tonk Women” to a beach setting as Styles recounts a classic one night stand. He has no problem being sexy without saying so in interviews. He proves his mettle as a balladeer on “Two Ghosts” and “Blackbird”-ish “Sweet Creature,” while showing off a raunchier rock sound on “Kiwi” and “Woman,” the latter a blatant riff on “Bennie and the Jets”.
It’s lead single “Sing of the Times”, however, that captures the essence of the album. The music video appropriately shows Styles soaring over an idyllic landscape in Scotland as he sings, “You can’t bribe the door on your way to sky.” It’s a lighter-waving stadium song that shoots for the heavens. You can’t help but give in to the gradual crescendo, the excellent production, and Styles’s sweet, sweet voice inviting you to stop crying because everything’s going to be alright. And then, as the song winds down, you find yourself returning to reality with the thought, “Wait, was that the same four chords?”
It is indeed the same four chords—four very good, well-dressed chords, but the four same ones, repeated for 5 minutes and 41 seconds. Lyrically, the song has shockingly little going on for something under the grandiose title “Sign of the Times”. Styles has said the song is about childbirth, which feels somewhat glib in the current social and political climate.
If you subject Harry Styles to slightly closer inspection, you find the music is as astoundingly devoid of content as the man interviewing behind it. What is Harry Styles even singing about? Women, I guess. Even when he sings about women, though, he’s hanging songs on skeletal tropes. Take “Two Ghosts”, a song already rumored to be about a brief headline-grabbing fling with Taylor Swift. Certainly one can project biography into it, but if you break it down, the story of “Two Ghosts” is “Once there were two people who changed.” We get no insight into how these people changed, or why, or even whether or not Styles is particularly sad about it. He musters some authentic lust on “Carolina”, but when he’s singing about a classic femme fatale on “Kiwi” (she’s so dangerous that she smokes cigarettes—gasp!), the best he can manage is “I’m kinda into it.” Apparently, this woman is going to have Styles' baby, but she tells him, “It’s none of your business,” which gives Styles (and us) a pass to not really care.
The closing track, a gentle acoustic piece in the style of For Emma, Forever Ago, is the one counterexample. We find Styles alone, drunk, and masturbating in a hotel room, and he’s right sad about it. It’s the most revealing moment on the album, but instead of a tantalizing peek behind the curtain it seems more like the exception that proves the rule: Harry Styles requires little investment.
Is that a bad thing? Not really. Lack of substance is a longstanding hallmark of great pop, and it produces the same effect as Styles' dull press tour, bringing attention to his music and his sincere love of his influences. Nor should anyone be looking to Harry Styles to be the voice of a generation. These songs are catchy as hell, and Styles gives a rare platform to a sound decidedly out of fashion on Top 40 radio. There’s a good chance that a One Direction zealot will discover Hunky Dory this year, and that’s not a bad thing.
On the other hand, in failing to articulate something of his own, Styles misses out on what made his inspirations so…inspirational. Styles may look like Mick Jagger, but is he exciting like Mick Jagger? While the music recalls the Stones, Bowie, and Elton, Oasis, Beck’s later work, and the Arctic Monkeys’ AM are better comparisons. These are artists and albums that borrow heavily from the classics while bringing something of their own. Harry Styles, by contrast, is rolling the wheel along rather than reinventing it.
Still, it’s a damn good wheel. Harry Styles is fun listening and will rightly soundtrack many a summer. But after demanding to be treated as a capital-A Artist, Harry Styles finds himself atop a pedestal without anything to say. Whether or not that changes, he sure is pretty to look at up there. B