We know Harry Styles has some songs. “Already Home,” “Coco,” Endlessly,” “5378 Miles” — these are the tracks the former One Directioner registered with his publishers at ASCAP in December 2015, leaving the legal trail to confirm what was already pretty much accepted: Zayn Malik won’t be the only solo 1D member hitting us with new music. (Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson have furthered that with their own singles as well.)
Zayn relished the newfound freedom. The solo debut he dropped in March 2016 (on the anniversary of leaving One Direction) might as well have been titled Yes, I Do Have Lots of Sex, and The Weeknd-indebted R&B all over Mind of Mine is what you’d expect from a real, live 23-year-old artist who suddenly no longer has to conform to a family-friendly public image. Styles has done some growing too: He’s now 23 and five years removed from a debut album with a song called “Up All Night” that was not a double-entendre at all but literally about dancing all night to Katy Perry. In One Direction’s earlier days, Styles guested as himself on an episode of iCarly; in 2017, he’s on tap for a significant role in Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama Dunkirk, and his first solo single will be released on April 7.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe Styles’ band accomplished so much in barely half a decade. Five albums, as many top 10 singles, near-constant touring — still, that didn’t stop Zayn from diving into solo work shortly after departing, and for Styles, it evidently hasn’t kept him out of the studio. But will Harry’s new material be as sharp a left turn from the old band as Zayn’s was? (He also chopped a lot of his hair off in May 2016, so there’s that.)
We don’t know what sort of lyrical content Styles has cooked up, but we aren’t expecting him to follow Zayn down the alt-R&B path. From his influences to his fashion to his onstage persona to his (formerly) flowing locks, Styles’ vibe has always screamed rock star, and despite the genre’s recent lack of presence on the Billboard Hot 100, he’s got the charisma to make it happen. And guess what? From Up All Night to 2015’s Made in the A.M., One Direction basically morphed into a pop-leaning rock band, one whose tendency to build songs on guitar and keys was often overshadowed by the fact people insisted on the boy band tag. Zayn veered away from this, and despite a fervent built-in fan base (which purchased 402,000 first-week copies of Made in the A.M. in the U.S.), his not-very-One Direction-sounding album sold considerably fewer copies — 112,000 — in its own debut week. Granted, “Pillowtalk” topped the Hot 100, but the Styles persona could give his solo career an even higher ceiling. So much hinges on how his first single fares.
So what’s it gonna sound like? The safe, industry-tested route would be a collection of folksy, acoustic-based ballads, ones that allow for a little soul-searching, while reminding radio program directors of the Ed Sheeran and James Bay songs they’ve had success with lately. One Direction even collaborated with Sheeran; pre-fame, he co-wrote their 2012 single “Little Things” and he was brought back to help with “18” on their final album. Styles didn’t write “Little Things,” but that’s exactly the sort of doe-eyed balladry we expect on his solo material. Even writing for Ariana Grande, Styles delivered a ballad, so expect him to focus on his comfort zone, even if it means pushing outside PG-13 1D territory. Getting almost any guitar sound outside of acoustic balladry on pop radio is a tough sell these days, but again, a Harry Styles debut won’t be treated like an ordinary debut. He’d be smart to build on what worked for One Direction, though we’re not exactly pining for a Maroon 5 spin-off like “Drag Me Down.” Something that taps into the U.K.’s rich tradition of guitar music — without giving into simple revivalism — would help Styles follow on the grown-up tastemaker appeal that Zayn was able to court with Mind of Mine. DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” kind of sounds like Duran Duran if they started out in 2016, and it managed to crack the top 10. Take it from Joe Jonas, another grown-up former member of a boy band that people were afraid to call a rock band.
Back to those ASCAP song titles: Post-1D Internet sleuths have already discovered “5378 Miles” is roughly the distance from Los Angeles to London. While pining for your love on the other side of the world is grade-A fare for a coffee-shop strum sesh, here’s hoping Styles is feeling creative. Debut albums with this much attention — and this much potential — don’t come around often.