“Sign of the Times,” Harry Styles‘ first single as a solo artist following the split of One Direction, has the Guardian asking whether Styles is the new Bowie and fans feeling like they’re about to shit their fuckin’ selves. It’s at least two minutes too long, it rides the same three chords for its entire length, it has a chorus that’s exactly the same as its verse but louder, it’s very serious, it has none of the carefree charm of One Direction’s hits, it contains such poetic lines as “You look pretty good down here, but you ain’t really good.” And it’s probably going to be inescapable soon.
Styles announced the upcoming release of “Sign of the Times” on the 30th anniversary of Prince’s masterpiece Sign o’ the Times, a move that will either make you begrudgingly respect his audacity or want to punch a hole through a wall, depending on your disposition. From the ridiculous chutzpah of the announcement to the somber piano chords that open the song, it’s clear that this is Styles’s attempt to distinguish himself as an artist with real depth. But the music itself has almost nothing to do with Prince–instead, think Oasis, Elton John at his most bombastic, ’70s John Lennon, and yes, perhaps a little of Hunky Dory‘s wild melodramatic balladry.
The song’s lyrics, title, and cover art indicate that we’re in apocalyptic territory, and Styles seems to use the end of the world as the metaphor for the end of a relationship. He sings the word “bullets” in a slightly creaky falsetto no less than 16 times in the song’s first four minutes, before the soaring coda reveals what he’s really talking about: “We don’t talk enough, we should open up / Before it’s all too much.” (All said and done, the “Sign of the Times” is nearly six minutes long.)
Speaking of soaring: “Sign of the Times” reminds me of the fist-pumping endings to songs like “Hey Jude” or “All the Young Dudes,” where the band locks into three or four chords and plays them for a minute or three, slowly advancing and retreating, a scorching guitar lead here, a new vocal harmony there, until reaching hard-earned catharsis. The difference is that those classic codas have actual songs attached to them. “Sign of the Times” has only those three chords, and it goes straight for cruising altitude with an onslaught of cymbals and guitar on the first chorus, expecting you to be moved without pausing to consider why.
Nonetheless, the fans were moved. When you listen to “Sign of the Times” on YouTube, the sidebar is filled with unbelievably histrionic reaction videos, thumbnails of vloggers looking beatific and upset, pulling their own hair or looking slack-jawed and dumbfounded. “Sign of the Times” is clunky and repetitive enough to worm its way into your brain, and probably onto the radio, and its vague signaling at our current political turmoil might give it extra stickiness.
But it’s also very easy to imagine a sea of cell phones coming out like swaying lighters when he plays it in concert. Even if it’s not a good song, “world-weary stadium rock balladeer” is a legitimately intriguing path for Styles to take in his post-One Direction career. Let’s just wait a little longer before we make any more Bowie comparisons.