Before getting into the album cover, we should look back to the single artwork for “Sign of the Times.” Styles is little more than a clothed silhouette, head tilted and staring off into some red, apocalyptic horizon, standing waist-deep in water. On his sides, in the close distance, are two hands, placed on either side of his body, palms up. They appear to be Harry’s -- there’s the faint blur of a tattoo and carefully placed rings, Styles’ signature style. It’s unclear if it’s a body fighting drowning, or perhaps trapped underneath the surface of the water, but it appears to be a struggle, Harry watching his past self with potentially calm acceptance. That reading would make sense: perhaps the floating body is Harry as One Direction heartthrob and the silhouette is Harry now, emerging above the water anew.
Water returns in both the album cover and back image. On the front, Styles appears to be half submerged in a pastel pink bath. His back remains facing us, but it’s much closer now, and unclothed -- it’s the most un-tattooed part of Styles, giving off a feeling of additional nudity, as there’s no black ink artwork to give off a particular individualism. It’s worth noting that the popular headline to describe the image was “topless,” usually a gendered term to connote an exposed cis woman’s chest. There’s something distinctly feminine about the reading of the cover.
Water -- being wet -- is also something almost uniquely femme. Female pop stars are usually the ones dosed in water, when men do so, it’s usually those with some gender-bending and/or queer qualities (think George Michael) or for the sole purpose of, more often than not, hetero-female enjoyment (fellow boy band heroes the Backstreet Boys or Justin Bieber all the time.) Harry Styles is a heartthrob, and placing him in water is a move certainly open to sexualization, but given the bath-like qualities of the image and his positioning away from the viewer, it feels more voyeuristic -- and in some ways, melancholic.
The water itself isn’t a clean, crystalline clear color. It’s opaque with pink, a blush shade, a bit more joyful than a gold rose. It’s the same color that’s been the source of thinkpieces for the last few weeks, a color deemed ‘millennial pink,’ a hue that has become popular with brands targeting that particular age demographic. It could be that Harry genuinely enjoys the color -- and we’d put our money on it, he’s always had femme-like qualities -- or is simply a shrewd businessman. Or both.
But it’s not just a pink background. It’s pink water. Historically, pink water is a type of wastewater that exists only in toxic environments: its color is discharged in situations of demilitarization, when TNT dissolves in water. It’s unusable, and turns brown when exposed to too much sunlight. It’s unclear if Harry has any topical aspirations, but bathing in what could be considered war waste gives off a distinct message. “Sign of the Times” feels like a song about the end of the world, and this unclean water imagery doesn’t feel too far off from that idea. Let’s not forget that Styles is playing a role in the upcoming World War ll film, Dunkirk, too.
That brings us back to the positioning of his body: angled, face obscured. His hands are folded as if in a reflective state (usually of regret, a sober shrinking of the body) or in prayer -- both are deeply intimate situations to catch someone in. If he is in the latter prayer position, water takes on another meaning -- there’s something reminiscent of a baptism. Covering your face is either a fear of exposure, or someone getting ready for rebirth.
Perhaps not the main focal point of the cover, but where the eye is drawn, is to the only thing Harry is wearing: a double necklace, its pendant flipped to reveal a lotus flower. Harry is no stranger to pendants -- from his paper airplane necklace to match early partner Taylor Swift to his key, cross and pearl jewelry -- but here, the flower seems to have new importance; it must, or it wouldn’t exist so prominently (even the long hairs on Harry’s neck drip downward, an arrow to the image.)
In One Direction fan world, the popular opinion is that the lotus flower refers to the lotus in Buddhism, a symbol of purity, a flower that exists in murky, obscured waters and connotes spiritual awakening. The back cover of the album confirms it -- Harry is seen dipped deeper in the pink water, as it nears his collarbone. Around him are lotus flowers floating in the pink water. We see his face for the first time, but only a percentage of it, his damp hair obscuring much of it. He’s only showing us what he wants us to see.
So what does it all add up to? There are certain obvious themes Harry wants us to pick up on, like the vulnerability of exposed skin, water, murk, rebirth. The images themselves are much more artful than any of One Direction’s albums, existing in a space of newfound maturation -- or perhaps it was always there, and Harry just now has the freedom to explore it. One thing is for certain: we’ll need to listen to learn, and our ears our perked.