Ever since the formation of One Direction in 2010, it’s been clear Harry Styles is a star. The piercing green eyes, the deep British accent, the long curly locks and the increasingly eccentric wardrobe… he seemed destined to become a rock star nearly from day one. Which is why, when the band decided to “take a break” beginning in early 2016, all eyes were on Styles. What would a solo Harry record sound like? Could he possibly live up to the enormous expectations set before him as the de-facto star of the world’s biggest boy band? Over a year later, his self-titled, 70s-rock-influenced debut goes a long way towards proving him worthy of the hype even if it occasionally veers too far into homage territory.
As someone who was disappointed with the weepy, Bowie-inspired first single “Sign of the Times” (still the worst song on the album by a mile, though it does seem less out-of-place when experienced with its musical siblings), it was a relief to realize that the other five ballads on Harry Styles fared better.
The best of these, “Sweet Creature”, is a Shakespearian-inflected ode to a lover whom Styles depends on to keep him grounded, singing “Sweet creature, sweet creature/Wherever I go, you bring me home/Sweet creature, sweet creature/When I run out of road you bring me home” in the chorus. Though thematically similar to many One Direction songs (“Don’t Forget Where You Belong” and “Right Now” being the clearest examples), the sweetly twinkling guitar riff—so similar to The Beatles’ “Blackbird” it’s almost a sample—gives it an air of freewheeling adulthood that suits Styles well.
The bookends of the album, “Meet Me in the Hallway” and “From the Dining Table”, though certainly not destined for the radio, are also notable for the vein of undeniable melancholy running through them both sonically and lyrically. In toning the apocalyptic warbles from “Sign of the Times” down to simple longing guitar and vocals, Styles’ weariness becomes much more intimate and, ultimately, believable—enough so that when the former boy-bander pleads for morphine in the third line of the first track of his very first solo album (“Meet Me in the Hallway”), you nearly give it to him. The issue with these two songs—and Harry Styles as a whole—however, is their placement on the tracklist.
The album swerves from ballad to bravado far too randomly to create any semblance of sonic cohesiveness, particularly with the aforementioned tracks. Similar sounds, lyrics, emotions, even corresponding household-inspired titles—“Meet Me in the Hallway” and “From the Dining Table” were made to be next door neighbors on the ten song tracklist, and not putting them together wastes an opportunity to both delight the ear and mind of the listener.
Luckily for Harry Styles (the album and the artist), it’s tough to truly be frustrated by the jolts between gloom and glee when the glee sounds this good. The first upbeat track—and coincidentally the last written—is called “Carolina”. Over a tune snagged straight from Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” Styles details his fascination with a fan he met in 2016 named Townes who is, unbelievably, from South Carolina. Though the concept of the song grows stranger each time you think too hard about it (is the line “How would I tell her that she’s all I think about?/Well, I guess she just found out” cheeky or scary?), the chanting la-la-la-la-la refrain and good girl chorus are so damn catchy it’s impossible to do anything but jam. This is one of the rare tracks on the album that really feel like a Harry Styles original instead of a shout-out to one of his favorite bands, and his debut is infinitely better for it.
Not to say these homages are a negative thing, though—standout “Only Angel” again rips an iconic guitar riff, this time from “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top, to create one of the most rollicking romps through rock star romance since Mick Jagger himself took to the stage. Styles’ obsession with the legendary Rolling Stones frontman comes out in full-force here and, although he could use some guidance on how to write about his “devil between the sheets” with a little more elegance, the delicious arrogance of the first verse is proof enough that when Styles does Jagger, he does Jagger right. And don’t worry, piano fans, there’s something for you too: “Woman”, a “Bennie and the Jets” take on burning jealousy accented by inverted vocals akin to quacks and anchored by a chorus consisting solely of Styles repeating the word woman in an affected tone—possibly German, definitely exasperated. It’s the closest he’ll probably ever come to a “Bitch, please!” track.
Overall, Harry Styles is a wonderfully diverse debut album that does a nice job of blending modern sounds with classic rock influences. It’s clear even with one listen how deep Styles’ love for music goes and how desperately he wants to be considered a true rock star for the Internet Age. Sadly, the album gives more of a clue about how 70s rock would sound if it were hurled into the 2010s than it does about Styles himself. When Styles realizes the rock stars themselves are supposed to star in their own shows, he could become a legend. For now, though, he’s just very, very enjoyable.