Like many groups to come out of X Factor, One Direction were assembled from would-be solo artists; despite their harmonies, scripted lad camaraderie, and terrifying sales numbers, the band was always a holding pattern until the boys could return to their solo careers. Zayn Malik, after an acrimonious departure, took the traditional ex-boybander route: getting the best R&B beats money can buy, escaping the band’s pent-up songwriting to relive his past couple years of getting very laid, and being rewarded with radio airplay. Liam Payne, with a Migos collaborations in the works, is angling to join him. Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson have embarked upon the twin British traditions of becoming a busker with a budget and guesting on an EDM song.
And Harry Styles, as you may have heard, is attempting to be a rock star. Of course it sounds ridiculous; no matter what music they release, with what sugar content, everyone in One Direction may forever remain frozen in the public imagination as moppets with rumpled hair, bubblegum songs a large singularity of preteen fans. And yet someone’s got to manage it, or else we’d have no Beatles, no Michael, no anybody without a perfectly scuzzy, organic past. Every teen idol sounds ridiculous proclaiming their maturity, until they don’t.
Oddly enough, of the five One Directioners, Styles new solo output strays the least from the music the group actually made. So strong is the pejorative of being a boy band that the group progressed from power-pop takes on the Backstreet Boys to full-on, and often-great, Journey and The Who rips with hardly any ado; he was prepping for this moment, if not from the beginning, then at least since he took “Faithfully” to the desert in a leopard coat. But Styles, of course, would rather not be known for carrying on the One Direction sound. Where Zayn spent the months before his album telling the world he has sex, Harry’s run his own yearlong campaign insisting he has cred, culminating in enormous documentary profiles by Paul McCartney and Almost Famous’s Cameron Crowe. “I didn’t want to put out my first album and be like, ‘He’s tried to re-create the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties,” Styles told Crowe. “I wanted to do something that sounds like me.”
But in the words of one of his idols, you can’t always get what you want. Harry Styles evokes all those decades, blatantly and shamelessly. As a result, Styles has been compared to everybody from David Bowie to Robbie Williams to Mott the Hoople (in very descending order), but he’s really the next Bruno Mars, doing with the British classic-rock canon what the one-time Smeezington has done with R&B and uptown funk. The two even share a producer: Jeff Bhasker, best known for pumping arenas full of air into albums by Kanye West (808s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), fun. (Some Nights), and dozens of others in the past decade, including one “Uptown Funk.” But it’s Uptown Special—Mark Ronson’s 2015 solo album, which houses “Uptown Funk,” and which was completely co-produced by Bhasker—that Harry Styles most resembles, with its simultaneous tour through, scrubbing clean and blowing to oversize of the classics. The album’s practically a game of matching the rock classic to its modern interpreter. “Sweet Creature” is “Blackbird” in the style of Ed Sheeran; “Two Ghosts” is “You and I” in the style of James Taylor; lead single “Sign of the Times” is a Bowie pastiche named after a Prince album, a move so tacky in its timing that it swings all the way round to unremarkable.
Like Mars, Styles plays all his roles gamely but unthreateningly. No one escapes The X Factor with vocal rough edges remaining, and neither glam-rock excess nor sedate folk fingerpicking mask the talent-show eagerness remaining in his voice. And hand-waving tabloid freakoutery aside, spending the decade in a boy band produces less debauchery to write about than one might think. Much of Harry Styles dwells upon the same hotel rooms or the hallways leading to hotel rooms. There’s writing what you know, and then there’s writing all you know.
And for an artist who’s built his career on appealing to girls, Styles is at his most colorless when he sings about them. Gone is the campy macking of One Direction lyrics like “her daddy was a dentist, said I had a dirty mouth”; instead, Styles tries on cliches like “she’s a good girl, she feels so good,” rock sleaze diluted in the intervening decades until it barely registers. The lyric to “Sweet Creature,” in its gentle condescension, is so ’70s it may turn your speakers avocado. The second the ambient choirs of “Only Angel” give way to riff slashing and competently executed screech is the moment you know exactly where the lyric is going to go (to hell, via the sheets).
So yes, Harry Styles is frequently ridiculous. It is ridiculous to begin a song with one minute of choir woohooing and reverbed voice of God. It is ridiculous, if very Bhasker, to croon in falsetto about the bullets. It is exceedingly ridiculous to beg for morphine 50 seconds into the album, or to begin “Woman” with a call to Netflix and chill, or, on “From the Dining Table,” to intone about playing with oneself over agreeable Laurel Canyon folk. But you don’t get to be ridiculous if you aren’t trying. “Kiwi” doesn’t quite get to Suffragette City, but it definitely makes it as far as the adjoining suburbs. Properly enlivening the blues piano, pitch-shifted grunts and cuckold fantasy of “Woman” is tough, but it takes a lot of bravery to even attempt it. The gently smeared vocals of “Meet Me in the Hallway” are less Cat Stevens than Cat Power; it and the restrained verses of “Carolina” suggest Styles might have a haunted folk album in him a couple years from now, when he gets the swagger out of his system.
If he doesn’t, “Sign of the Times” redeems itself on sheer ambition, Styles delivering every line as if he’s making a crucifixion pose on a cliff projected onto a large arena that is smoldering, and Bhasker producing it to sound five times bigger still. If Harry Styles does indeed become a rock star, Harry Styles has ample retrospective evidence to see it coming. And if not, at least he couldn’t have tried harder.