The first official visual of Harry Styles‘ solo career was released Monday morning (May 8) with the video for his debut post-One Direction single, “Sign of the Times.” And in case you weren’t aware that Styles was taking off on his lonesome, that’s literally what he does in the clip: Standing in solitude in an open landscape, the heartthrob singer-songwriter takes a leap off a small rock once the full track kicks in, and he just keeps going up, rising above the world from heights reportedly greater than the peak of the Empire State Building.
As Styles floats on, across rivers and waterfalls and mountains and up into the clouds at sunset, the biggest takeaway from the visual is just how alone he is. Of course, it’s fitting for the song’s end-times lyrics and slow-burning, cinematic grandeur that the breakout star should appear in his first video essentially as the last man on earth, performing his superhero air-ballet without witness. Which isn’t to say that the visual has the wasteland look of any number of classic early ’80s videos (or indeed, Styles’ own single cover art) — the video is much more sweeping than portentous in its panoramic photography — but just that Harry is putting the unequivocal point across that he’s going it solo this time out.
It’s a message worth hammering home for Styles, because it’s not just One Direction that he’s standing apart from now: It’s pretty much all of mainstream radio. 1D weren’t always at pop’s sonic center either — Savan Kotecha, writer of the group’s breakout hit “What Makes You Beautiful,” told Billboard in April that he specifically engineered the song’s power-pop sound based on his belief that boy bands should provide “counter-programming” to the dominant trends of the moment. But Styles’ old group never had a single that was as big an outlier as “Sign of the Times,” a six-minute crawl of a power ballad whose production, instrumentation and general idea of what pop music should be has precious little in common with much of anything in top 40 rotation on either side of the Atlantic.
None of this is totally without precedent, though. Robbie Williams‘ similarly lighter-waving 1997 anthem “Angels,” which would soon prove his signature solo hit, followed an equivalent logic with its scenic visual; featuring the former Take That boy-bander mostly standing alone in wide open spaces, captured via swooping aerial photography as he contemplated the great beyond. Williams was actually coming from the opposite musical direction as Styles historically — at the time, the U.K. was still coming down from the guitar-rock high of Britpop, while the success of Williams’ string-soaked balladry helped clear the way for traditional pop (and traditional pop stars) to take back over. But in both cases, the solo visual establishes the artist making a clear break from their past as part of the pack, and signals them now leading the way into something new.
Will Harry Styles reach heights on the charts as untethered as those he scales in his video? The answer is still unclear: “Sign of the Times” debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. charts and No. 4. on the Billboard Hot 100, but sank on both fairly quickly after, as radio seems to continue deliberating how much they want to embrace the fantastic new song that nonetheless sticks out on their playlists like a lightning bolt on an otherwise clear-skied, 65-degree day. But at the very least, Styles seems aware and prepared for the fight he’s chosen, and knows that if he’s gonna soar with the song as he soars in his video, he’ll have to do so on his own.