If you’ve read about Harry Styles‘ slow trickle of solo material over the last month — in this publication as elsewhere — you’ve been confronted with the names of just about every major figure in British rock history. David Bowie! Mick Jagger! Elton John! Liam Gallagher! Eric Carmen! OK, that last one isn’t British (or all that major), but he shows the range of historical rock personages needed to make contextual sense out of the beast that is Solo Harry.
The biggest relief, then, of listening to Styles H’s post-1D debut LP is that, on the whole, it doesn’t really remind you of anyone. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t obvious influences — it’s a rock album made in 2017 that isn’t by Merzbow, of course there are obvious influences. But the overall impression of hearing Harry Styles isn’t “Oh, he made a Bowie album!” or “Oh, he made a Stones album!” or anything like that. It’s “Oh, he made a Harry Styles album.”
Which may come as something of a disappointment to anyone hoping that Harry Styles would touch down on the pop realm like the guitar-shaped UFO from the Boston cover, and kick nearly as much immediate commercial ass as that album did four decades ago. Despite the six-minute, sky-scraping reach of lead single “Sign of the Times,” this album isn’t that chest-puffed about trumpeting its own arrival; it doesn’t sound like a big deal so much as it sounds like an album by someone who’s used to being a big deal. In other words, it’s not Harry Styles trying to pronounce how BACK rock is, it’s him casually shrugging at the idea that rock ever went away in the first place.
The album is most striking in its leanness. Running just 10 tracks and 40 minutes — with its bookending tracks both beatless ballads that feel more like a wind-up and comedown than fully fleshed songs — the set is determinedly bloat-free, and that extends to the individual songs, which are tightly wound compositions that actually learn well from One Direction‘s sense of formalism and punchiness. It probably surprises no one at this point to learn there’s nary a trop-house beat, pitch-bent Diplo hook or Migos guest verse to be found on Harry Styles; more surprising might be that there’s no sprawling guitar solos, lengthy mid-song breakdowns or even (with the possible exception of “Sign”) extended vocal vamping on site, either.
As a result, the album runs with the understated poise of an artist that simply knows what they’re doing. “Ever Since New York” is a lovely acoustic number with the scene-setting elegance and gut-wrenched lyrical meandering of a great Ryan Adams ballad, with climactic harmonies that practically verge on Fleet Foxes. “Only Angel” is a classic rave-up, marrying cowbell, handclaps and a Britpoppy “ooh-woo-hoo” vocal tic to a KISS-style strutter that teens could still take home to their parents. And of course, “Sign of the Times” is still here and still glorious, wisely lifting off as the album’s proper opener, establishing early that he has the chips to at least buy in at the grown-ups’ rock table.
These songs echo the highs previously reached by older artists, to be sure, but they stop short of outright homage — the most frequent feeling one gets as a rock fan listening to Harry Styles is that feeling of an obvious point of comparison being just out of reach. Even when the ingredients are more obvious — the vocal delivery of “Carolina” is clearly swiped from the Becktionary, while its acoustic shuffle is guaranteed to get Michael Madsen boogieing — the recipe still feels new, and Styles wisely plays it straight enough that you can never be quite sure if he’s winking or not. Compared to the cartoonish (if still usually thrilling) games of classic pop/rock Name That Tune that the final few One Direction albums turned into, this feels a lot more sustainable.
The only real problem with Harry Styles is that its maker’s confidence is occasionally a little too quiet. “Woman,” the album’s pounding, crawling climax, has the DNA of a classic Prince ballad — even the spoken-word “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix?” intro is the kind of seductive silliness The Purple One would’ve bust a gut giggling over. But the song calls out for something… well, more. Two minutes in and the song is out of tricks, with no guitar solo to come careening through like an oncoming train, no ad-libbed outro to provide extra stank. On several tracks, the album cries out for a charisma kill shot that never quite arrives; Styles is content to make his fans swoon, rather than hitting them with that final hip thrust to send them screaming into a different time zone.
Similarly, as a lyricist it’s hard not to feel Styles isn’t 100% there yet. There are moments on the album that show an impressive deftness: “Carolina” is a love song that breaks the fourth ventricle (“How would I tell her that she’s all I think about?/ Well, I guess she just found out”) with lyrical turns more cute than cheesy, while closer “From the Dining Table” shows an ability to express loneliness with Motown-like cleverness and concision (“Even my phone misses your call”). But other lyrics feel like placeholders, or borderline cliches (“We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me/ Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat”) that require a more piercing delivery — like, say, the one frequently weaponized by Styles’ most famous ex — than Styles’ affable toothlessness to sell.
But if Harry doesn’t arrive on debut fully realized as a rock star, his outline as one is still unmistakable. Though Styles is reverse-engineering his Jaggerness — traditionally, the screaming fans have come as a result of the swiveling singles, rather than providing the before-the-fact justification for them — he’s already showed he’s worthy of the lineage, in a way that isn’t even indebted to Mick all that directly. Harry Styles won’t provide the gravity to bend top 40 towards its center — it’s just not that massive an album. But what it might do is give the next would-be rock star the confidence to buck current pop trends and follow in the footsteps (if not the exact shoes) of the greats that came before them on their own debut LP. They might even name the album after themselves.