With “Sign of the Times,” Styles more or less explains the reason for the wait. This is one of the more ambitious opening statements in pop this decade, an ostentatious and essentially verse-less stab at something both immediate and timeless. My colleague Andrew Unterberger already broke down everything that “Sign of the Times” is — defiantly rock, proudly bombastic and impossibly British included. One thing that it isn’t, though, is undercooked, which is perhaps its most important trait of all.
Imagine for a second that you are Harry Styles, and that it is the end of 2015. One Direction has just released its fifth album (and first since becoming a quartet), and will not tour behind it. Your former group-mate Zayn has teased an insanely anticipated solo debut after leaving One Direction that March. Your fellow members have each expressed interest in striking out with solo projects, yet you know that the focus is squarely on your next move, as the 1D member with (arguably, but sorta obviously) the highest profile and most name recognition. You have just spent five years in the biggest pop group of the 2010s, and the world is starving for your next step.
Imagine how many offers Styles must have turned down to perform, collaborate and hurry his solo career into existence. Imagine the discipline it must have taken to wait this long to drop a finished first single, without teasing any new music to the several million Directioners anxiously awaiting your arrival and constantly messaging you about it on social media. At the time of One Direction’s final album release, Styles was 21 years old, and could have jumped the gun on becoming a rock star with the support of most labels or managers. To wait until this moment to get this right, Styles had to be uncompromising.
And that’s what “Sign of the Times” is: resolute, determined, wholly committed to its messaging and sound, radio trends be damned. Although it wears its influences on its sleeve (RIP, David Bowie), nothing about this single bends toward someone else’s expectations. “Sign of the Times” sounds effortless, but to arrive without any incomplete features is an accomplishment in a music industry where pop artists are expected to produce new music at an unsustainable rate and buckle at least in part to what everyone else is doing (while still remaining original, of course). Throw in the fact that Styles was a huge name before releasing a shred of solo music, and the patience and attention to detail of “Sign of the Times” is a pretty remarkable feat.
Will “Sign of the Times” be a hit? Who knows, but that’s sort of beside the point. Styles has dropped a bonafide piece of art that took months to complete, and did so on his own terms. It’s a subtle win for him, and for his audience. Harry took his time, and got it right.