Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
Long before One Direction announced their breakup hiatus, it was obvious that its members were trying to gain genuine credibility to prepare for their inevitable solo careers. Arguably the most successful in this front was Harry Styles, who always felt like the ringleader of the group that insisted it didn’t have a ringleader.
So how did Styles manage to gain such credibility while performing in a boy-band every night? Firstly, let’s not beat around the bush, Styles is gorgeous, and was clearly the group’s most physically attractive member. Secondly, he complemented his natural looks and established a signature fashion sense which saw him frequently named as one of the world’s best-dressed men in fashion magazines like GQ.
However, it was obvious even in One Direction that the biggest stab into credibility for Styles would come when he launched his solo career. It just so happens that his solo career got off to the best possible start – the lead single from his self-titled debut is the album’s undisputed highlight – the six-minute epic Sign Of The Times. The borrowed title would seem to indicate that the Cheshire heartthrob would channel Prince vibes on the first taster of his record but instead it is a glam-rock track dripping in David Bowie and Queen influences. Styles’ vocals are near-impeccable on Sign Of The Times as they are throughout the album, sliding effortlessly between a croon and a falsetto between the track’s huge vocal crescendo.
Sadly though, the lead single set unbelievably high expectations for the rest of the record, and it cannot live up to the (impeccably high) standards of Sign Of The Times. This track also foreshadowed two of the record’s most prevalent shortcomings. Styles is obviously eager to pay tribute to and show homage to his musical idols, but his self-titled debut sees him mirroring his heroes too closely at times, and many of his lyrics are average at best and drowning in cheap clichés.
Sign Of The Times subscribed to both of these weaknesses, bearing more than a passing influence to Bowie and Queen, while the lyrics came across as quite nondescript and generic. However, while this track exhibits these flaws, the instrumental and the vocals are so irresistible that the flaws don’t drag it down. Styles’ lyrical flaws are less prevalent here too – the track’s almost apocalyptic sentiment manages to grab the attention.
However, these flaws have a far more detrimental effect on many other tracks on the record. Second single Sweet Creature comes off as an ode to The Beatles’ Blackbird, but the track’s simple instrumentation – a lone acoustic guitar – just comes across as boring, and Styles’ average-at-best lyricism does little to save it. These shortcomings don’t expel every track from good song school though – Ever Since New York is a country-tinged track which bears more than a passing resemblance to many of U2’s works, but the instrumentation and lyrics are so good that even the one-line chorus of “Tell me something I don’t know already” is endlessly enjoyable – and provides one of the record’s highlights, despite the sub-par lyricism. On an even stronger note, the double-punch of Only Angel and Kiwi moves away from the ballads which comprise the majority of this record in favour of two genuine rock songs. These tracks hear Styles embracing the Mick Jagger comparisons he is branded with and writing two Rolling Stones-esque rock songs.
Only Angel’s into is misleading – a gorgeous minute-long piano and choir piece before a snarling guitar lick takes centre stage, which allows the usually humble Styles to exude arrogance when almost bragging about the girl who was the muse for this track. Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to Only Angel is that it survives the god-awful “devil in between the sheets” lyric in the second verse, and still comes off as enjoyable.
Directly following Only Angel is slightly edgier cousin Kiwi, which manages to sound even more like the Rolling Stones, which is helped by the fact that former boy-band member and famed Nice Guy Styles makes not-so-subtle lyrical references to cigarettes, alcohol and cocaine. The lyrics here are an improvement, and the chorus consists of a girl telling Styles: “I’m having your baby/ it’s none of your business”. It’s hardly Shakespeare-esque, and is far from profound, but it’s perhaps the most memorable lyric on the album (only rivalled by a certain lyric on closer From The Dining Table) and it matches the track’s fun nature.
These two tracks showcase the best of Styles’ clear tactic to pay obvious homage to his influences but he doesn’t get it this right throughout the album. Penultimate track Woman hears Styles almost impersonate Elton John, and deliver a song with a sexy, seductive swagger but it falls flat on its face and the sickly one-word chorus consisting of only the track’s title and a “La la la la la la” singalong is a strong contender for the record’s worst moment.
It is worth remembering though, that Styles has taken risks with this record and should be commended for it. After his years in One Direction, Styles could easily have made a record full of pop bangers, which is confirmed by Carolina, which has a 60’s tinge but is undoubtedly the album’s poppiest moment, and it provides one of the record’s highlights, with another “La la la” singalong which comes off light years better than Woman’s did. What is frustrating about this record is it feels at times like Styles is trying to prove that he has good taste in music, but gets so caught up in this that he fails to develop his own sound. Both the opening and closing tracks are perhaps the only two indicators of what a Harry Styles song sounds like on this entire record.
Meet Me In The Hallway and From The Dining Table are both sparse, country-tinged ballads, and, Dining Table in particular hears Styles at his most confessional, opening with a lyric about having a wank, before declaring that he’d “never felt less cool”. Hearing these two tracks is frustrating, they are well-written and Styles’ vocals are fragile and alluring, but they leave the listener wishing that he had developed “his own” sound more on his first solo LP. Sadly however, what seems part and parcel of a truly “Harry Styles” song, at least on this debut, are rushed-sounding, shoddy lyrics. On a record where he pays such homage to his heroes, this LP can leave the listener wishing Styles had imitated his favourite band Frightened Rabbit a bit more closely, and come out with smarter lyricism.
This is not a bad record by any stretch, as the majority of the instrumentals and Styles‘ vocals are vastly enjoyable. However, it remains a frustrating listen, as it hears Styles, credited for his fashion sense, wearing his influences so closely that he fails to develop his own sound on this ironically self-titled debut.
Outstanding piece of work from, what is now hard to believe, the ex one direction member. Highlights are Sign of the Times and Kiwi for me. A very mature feel, and a beautifully produced album.
8/10 – Gregor Farquharson (@gregoratlantic)
While there’s some definite highlights, there’s no denying the grandiose loveliness of Sign of the Times or the glam-rock good times on Carolina, far too often on Styles’ debut does it come off as record so deep-rooted in its influences that the man himself never gets a chance to spread his wings. A solid effort but one that comes off as just a bit disappointing.
4.5/10 – Liam Menzies (@blnkclyr)
Incredibly catchy and surprisingly slick debut. I’m not much of a fan of slow soppy ballads but the ones on this album resonate with me, which is quite hard to accomplish. Seriously impressed, will be listening to it all year!
8/10 – Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)
Personally I wasn’t too taken by it, although Harry obviously matured with this release, he hasn’t matured enough to break away from some of the tired out stereotypes of the genre he seems so fond of. Sign of the Times is a very strong song, however.
5/10 – Karsten Walter (@karseatheadrest)
A confident and wildly entertaining debut. The songs, whilst not at all complex, showcase Styles‘ voice incredibly well, and they highlight his keen ear for a catchy as hell chorus. Banger central.
8/10 – Jake Cordiner (@jjjjaketh)