One year after the split of One Direction, Harry Styles released his self-titled debut album. It was a left-turn of sorts, and it begged one particular question – was he trying to be a rock star? That’s certainly what it sounded like. Sure, the shades of pop that skyrocketed him to success remained, the agreeable melodic sentiments of his former five-piece, but Styles’ solo debut was also dripping in the sounds of Americana rock, to the point where he didn’t sound British anymore.
Parallel to this was his new-found image. One that seemed uninterested in mainstream representations, especially when it came to traditional masculinity. Harry Styles was slowly unveiling himself, estranging himself from any of the stereotypes that pulled him back to being in a boyband. The way he dressed, how he opened himself up so quickly to fans, his nonchalance pitted against his swagger – Harry Styles was constructing a new version of himself, and right from the start it was fully believable.
I remember when “Sign Of The Times” came out. After hearing it, my initial reaction went something like, “wait, that’s Harry Styles? For real?”
It remains one of his best singles, a soaring composition, the elated falsettos a stunning partner to his otherwise flawless vocal delivery, and the grandiose ending, the choir, the drums – everything altogether recalling something of Prince’s “Purple Rain”. It still feels like a defining moment in Styles’ career, and its enduring spirit has a lot to do with how unexpected it was. I’ll be the first to admit that I never thought Harry Styles was capable of making something so culturally in-tune. Something that felt original and appealing and new all at once.
But this was the necessary move Styles needed to make, to prove to the world that he wasn’t just another one of Simon Cowell’s talent show exports. It’s something none of his former 1D bandmates, now gone solo, have managed to do. None of them can match his success. Having just headlined Coachella, and his latest single “As It Was” having just broken the record for the most number of streams on Spotify in a single day, Styles’ upcoming third studio album is set to be his biggest yet, but none of that would be without the groundwork laid on his first offering.
From the bluesy harmonics of opener “Meet Me In The Hallway”, to The Rolling Stones-inspired swigs of hard-ish rock on “Kiwi”, “Only Angel” and “Carolina”, to “Woman” and its punches of bass-funk, Styles cleverly mixes genres, unearthing a modern relevance in his songwriting that danced between the borders of mainstream and indie.
Yet the record ends softly, “From The Dining Table” a tender track accompanied by simple guitar and not much else. The vocals are different too, more akin to Mumford and Sons than Bowie or Jagger. It’s a sincere ending, leaving the parades of wild women and unseeable inhibition that lyrically dominate the record behind.
Instead, Styles takes us to his hotel room, alone and far less cool, waiting for a call that never comes. It seems a far cry from who he is today, now an iconic figure in modern pop, loved by millions, but what Harry Styles did on his debut record was give us something ultimately unpolished, meant to feel familiar, intimate, and that’s what fans will forever hold on to.