Harry Styles’ first single, “Sign of the Times,” dropped on Friday (Apr. 7) and it’s a mind-bender that rakes in influences from Pink Floyd and David Bowie to Spacehog, Coldplay, the Beatles, Eric Carmen and Prince. It was hard to know what to expect from “the cute one,” whose vocals in One Direction were sometimes overlooked because of his long, luxurious hair and celebrity dating profile.
But Styles swings for the fences on the nearly six-minute track, which serves as a kind of rock history lesson, folding in psychedelic soul, indie rock and spacey pop. Every artists is an accumulation of their influences, and in “Sign of the Times” they come fast and furious, as Styles appears to be both showing his range and making a clear effort to step boldly away from the manufactured, plastic pop of his past.
We thought we’d break all those touchstones down for you:
Opening with a stately piano and some synth effects, the song immediately brings to mind an even slower version of Coldplay‘s “The Scientist,” with a touch of the Beatles‘ “Hey Jude.”
But as soon as Styles’ vocals kick in, with the world -weary line, “Just stop your cryin’/ It’s a sign of the times/ Welcome to the final show/ Hope you’re wearing your best clothes,” you can’t help but think of the melancholy glam of Bowie circa Hunky Dory, mashed up with the dark lyrical outlook of The Wall-era Pink Floyd, along with the piano melodrama of the Dark Side of the Moon instrumental “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Though given the Simon Cowell connection you can’t help but think of Robbie Williams‘ “Angels,” too.
The title, of course, with it’s refrain “it’s a sign of the times,” could be read as an allusion to Prince‘s album of the same name, which was released 30 years to the day (Mar. 31) that the former 1D member announced the tune.
Styles breaks into a falsetto on the second verse — or chorus, if you want to consider it as such — bringing to mind the plaintive stylings of Suede’s Brett Anderson, not to mention Spacehog‘s Antony and Royston Langdon on their classic ’90s alt-rock smash “In the Meantime.” But more than anything the sliding guitar and uplift of the chorus evoke Bowie‘s “Life on Mars.”
When the arrangement ramps up around the 1:24 mark and the strings swell and drums kick in as Styles puts a bit more drama into his voice, you might want to check out Eric Carmen‘s classic mid-’70s weeper “All By Myself.”
The bombast of the song as it motors through the third minute, with the slide guitars and strings mixing underneath Styles’ plea “we gotta get away from here,” also clearly evokes the over-the-top pomp of Oasis songs such as “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” from 2002’s Heathen Chemistry.
By the time the guitars start really swirling and Harry’s wailing “We got to get away/ We got to get away” near the song’s end you might get a whiff of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, or, perhaps the bluster of Foreigner‘s classic 1984 ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Now see if you can spot all of that in Harry’s song.