It’s not like we weren’t warned. Rumors had long swirled about the sound of former One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles’ upcoming solo career taking inspiration from ’70s rock staples Queen and David Bowie, and Styles’ own fashion statements of recent years certainly telegraphed his interest in being considered part of the British rock continuum. But still, it can’t help but be a little shocking to hear Harry’s solo debut “Sign of the Times” for the first time, to hear that thudding piano intro give way to soaring guitar and dramatically sighing vocals. It’s strangely disconcerting in how familiar it all feels.
Throughout the song’s nearly six-minute run time, the memories of British rock history shoot off like fireworks — spanning from late-period Beatles to Bowie to Listen Without Prejudice-era George Michael to Suede to Robbie Williams and even early Coldplay. It doesn’t sound like a tribute to (or rip off of) any of these artists — it just sounds like someone who’s grown up studying at the feet of all these titans and now wants to try his hand at joining their ranks. And to Styles’ considerable credit, he basically succeeds: “Sign of the Times” is as lighter-waving, arm-swaying, random-mate-hugging a power ballad as they come, sounding — as many have pointed out on Twitter on this somewhat apocalyptic-seeming of Fridays — like the appropriate montage soundtrack for the end of the world.
But whatever IRL timeliness the song’s strength-in-weariness lyric delivers, musically, the song’s title comes off as pretty ironic. Fact is, “Sign of the Times” couldn’t sound much less like 2017; a pop era where rock music is viewed as increasingly archaic and even the biggest bands — no shade to LCD Soundsystem — seem to be trading in their guitars for turntables, or at least some enormous synths. To hear Harry’s big return keyed to a song built around Elton John piano and George Harrison guitar slides is pretty jarring: Ten years ago, the song would’ve felt somewhat safe, 20 years ago it would’ve felt downright pandering, 40 years ago it would’ve been Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.” But right now, it feels practically subversive.
And you know what? The rock part of it isn’t even the most surprising thing. What’s really staggering about “Sign of the Times” is just how goddamn British it is. Look at the paths the other One Direction members have taken since the group went on indefinite hiatus: Louis is making EDM bangers with Steve Aoki, Zayn is trying to catch a ride on Drake’s luxury liner and Niall (Irish, not British) is making Mumford-via-“Hey There Delilah” folk-contemporary. Hell, look at 1D themselves: Their last few albums were heavily rock influenced, but took cues from Fleetwood Mac, Journey and Def Leppard — the latter a U.K. band, but one way more popular with American audiences — rather than anything proudly British.
Styles, meanwhile, practically sounds like he’s draping himself in the Union Jack and yelling “Yanks Go Home.” He’s created the perfect song for British rock fans who wish Glastonbury would go back to more traditional headliners, who wonder why 20 years after Be Here Now essentially ended the Britpop moment, nobody seems interested in picking up Oasis’ mantle. (The Gallagher brothers will probably hate it.) In the U.K. as in the U.S., the entire musical mainstream seems to be going global, and that’s mostly a good thing, which has led to some interesting and boundary-breaking music at pop’s center. But there’s something undeniably refreshing about a huge pop/rock song with this strong a sense of its home country’s musical history and identity — you just don’t hear much of that anymore, coming from anywhere.
It’ll be fascinating to follow what radio does with this song. It doesn’t sound like anything topping the charts on either side of the Atlantic, and it’s just about impossible to imagine American top 40 stations scheduling six minutes of this in between Chainsmokers and Bruno Mars jams. But less than a day into its lifespan, the song already seems to be striking a big enough chord — it rocketed to the top of the iTunes charts within hours of its middle-of-the-night U.S. release — that it might soon prove equally impossible to imagine the biggest stations ignoring it entirely. If this really is the film soundtrack to the end days, then cue the Don LaFontaine trailer voice: IN A WORLD where pop was ruled by trop-house and Ed Sheeran, ONE MAN dared to try to bring British rock back to the mainstream. Let’s sit back and see how this unfolds.