I couldn’t even name or remember the chorus melody to even one of their songs, so why should I waste the best part of an hour listening to what is almost certain to be unmitigated awfulness, in spades?
Because I’m just sick enough to try anything, okay? And because, sometimes, this approach pays off – I just love it when something turns out to be much better than I had ever imagined.
And you know what? This self-titled solo debut by Harry Styles is pretty good, and more important, it’s an enjoyable listen from go to whoa. Who would actually have thought that, except for one of those post-post-modern reviewers for whom contemporary pop music is an excuse to inflate drooling stupidity to the level of musical MENSA.
But anyway, the thing about Harry Styles is that he’s either following his own inclinations, or he’s following someone’s advice about going for a demographic that totally ignores tweens, teens and sad fucks who follow boy bands. Whatever the case (and I’ll generously give him the benefit of the doubt), he’s going after an older audience here, and happily, he’s refreshingly free of Ed Sheeran pretend-troubadour mannerisms.
Look, right away I have to get this off my chest: like most modern pop product, Harry Styles has too many people with their hands in its pie, which means a number of producers and writers and probably unnamed focus groups. It goes in the wrong direction a couple of times (more than one direction; ha!) and it’s on those occasions he seems to have actually taken the advice of the machine.
For the most part, however, there’s a certain vibe to the thing that’s quite uniform and quite appealing, and when it’s working, he sounds more post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side Of The Moon Pink Floyd than anything, which means that his songs have a melancholy hue that’s strangely appealing, mainly because the arrangements are actually quite creative and unexpected, with a number of instrumental layerings that this critic would never have expected. Add the fact that he sings well and at times comes across as a young Jeff Buckley sans histrionics, and that the lyrics are really quite cleverly plotted out, and seldom have those annoying, pat, manipulative ear-worm characteristics of so much pop, and we’re actually cooking with gas.
The first two songs both have the drifting, atmospheric Floyd thing happening, although I have to add that unlike those dirty longhairs, Styles carries off a power pop chorus in ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’ and a winning falsetto on ‘Sign Of The Times’.
There’s more angst in the fourth song, ‘Two Ghosts’, a pleasantly strummy song with acoustic guitar and harmonica, in which he’s “trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat” at what is clearly the end of an affair. ‘Ever Since New York’ also turns on the melancholy mood, and it’s only the gently pitter-pattering beats that keep it buoyant. ‘Sweet Creature’ is another highlight, with its clean fingerpicking and pleasurably minimally processed performance. It’s a nice piece of relationship dialogue (admittedly one-sided) too, where the protagonist somehow remains optimistic despite the serious shit they’re going through.
There are fun turns to break things up, including ‘Carolina’, which amps the tempo for a bit of Caribbean-flavoured frolicking, and – wouldn’t you know it! – there’s more than a touch of Shaggy’s ‘Oh Carolina’ about it, but we can forgive that, right? ‘Only Angel’ sounds like it’s going to erupt into a full, dramatic Kate Bush mini-rock opera, but instead gets a Stones-like swagger about it and goes all out to prove that Styles can get raunchy… and fails. Unfortunately, it’s mere mimicry, complete with the type of gospel backing singers the Rolling Stones used at their peak, and while it might prove a fun song for fans to wag their tails to at gigs, it’s a weak spot on record.
‘Woman’ – the second to last song – is a nice slow groove and it feels like a song from a different project, with its fresh hip-hop hybrid sound and the first real sign of bass action on the whole record.
I wish Styles had insisted on consistency. If he’d carried through on the sound of the first few songs, he could have taken things in different directions on his second and third solo outings. I guess that’s the tyranny of the moment, where pop acts are back to having to produce potential singles, and an all-round album package that holds together stylistically is always imperilled by the main prerogative.
It’s not that songs like ‘Woman’ are bad. Quite the reverse, actually. And perhaps there’s even a rock and roll album in him. On ‘Kiwi’, he does manage a more assured old-fashioned rock sound, and it works, but it just jars, because it’s somehow not in the spirit of its best tracks. [And no, I’m not even going to start guessing who the girl in ‘Kiwi’ is. She’s crazy, and he’s into it – that’s all I need to know].
Harry Styles is a pretty good debut album, all told, and makes suggestions of who this guy is and where he’s likely to go in the future. It doesn’t hold together as a great, consistent piece of modern pop, but sporadically, its slightly old-world approach does bear rewards for the listener. Good singin’, good playin’, to steal the title of a crappy old Grand Funk Railroad album, and to that you can add ‘mostly quite interesting arrangements’, even though the actual sound quality is typical of contemporary records mastered more for MP3 than full spectrum hi-fi systems: clear as anything, but little in the way of bass depth or real grunt.