Harry Styles is one of the anointed ones from all those sold-out One Direction shows, another air-brushed boy band marketed with perfect hair and hit-factory choruses outlined in bubblegum pink. Like N’ Sync’s Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber before him, Styles now begins the transition to adult pop star with a concise, 40-minute self-titled solo debut that practically screams “Take me seriously!”
So is there really something about Harry? The 10 songs edge toward ’70s revivalism rather than 2017 hip-hop-EDM-urban-contemporary stylishness, a move presaged by One Direction tracks such as “Four” and “Fireproof.” Producer Jeff Bhasker specializes in freshening up retro-leaning sounds with artists such as Kanye West and Jay-Z . Bhasker co-wrote nine of the 10 songs with Styles, along with a small team of hired guns.
“Meet Me in the Hallway” provides a low-key opening, with acoustic guitar and reverb-drenched vocals lending a dreaminess designed to make Styles’ fans swoon. “Sign of the Times” follows, and the single encapsulates Styles’ aspirations and his promise (the song title bows to Prince, the melodrama to Queen). Piano and falsetto contemplation bloom into full-on orchestral bombast. The slow-burn ballad works in large part because Styles keeps his voice intimate, almost conversational, in spite of the strings and voices rising against his back. The lyrics, ostensibly about a woman dying in childbirth, at times verge on nonsensical: what’s all this business about being stuck and running from the bullets?
The album establishes that he can pull off a more mature sound, but it lacks the hooks and pop appeal of One Direction’s big hits.