Saturday, May 13, 2017

album review: 'harry styles' by harry styles

I think it's worth mentioning how we got to this point, and I think it's also worth mentioning that there's no real way to discuss this debut record without placing it context of the other One Direction debut projects that have been released or are launching as we speak. Because when I reviewed Mind Of Mine by Zayn, I made the commentary that it hard to ignore how much history was repeating itself, a boy band breakaway making a sleek, sexy R&B project that was already eclipsing the band in terms of success...

But this is where things get complicated, because while Zayn may have gotten that #1, the critics were not exactly kind to him, and he spent the rest of 2016 with steadily diminishing returns. But the larger surprise was that unlike previous boy band projects, the other members were splitting off in wildly different directions. Louis split towards modern pop, a direction that seems to be echoed by Liam given his upcoming single release in a week with a feature from Quavo - kind of fascinating, given that for as much as these two were the main 'songwriter' types in One Direction, the one who pivoted towards the acoustic folk version of that type was Niall Horan, who has been making music I'd argue is way better than it's been given credit.

And then there's Harry Styles, who many people thought would be the breakout star as the face of the band and easily its most popular and recognizable member - even though, unlike Justin Timberlake, he wasn't one of the bigger contributing songwriters in One Direction. So I think everyone was blindsided when he released 'Sign Of The TImes', which was a direct callback to 70s classic rock - and it also was really good! Granted, if you look behind the scenes, it's not that surprising - Styles had pulled Jeff Bhasker on board, along with Tyler Johnson, who was the main producer behind the criminally underrated pop country debut from Cam in 2015. This is a team of producers and writers who know how to put together a strong album, even if it probably would feel like a shameless throwback. Still, while he might have won over the critics who have been desperately looking for reasons to praise something connected to One Direction, I was a lot more skeptical, because if you're going for that brand of rock, eventually the edge would have to materialize and I hadn't heard it yet. So okay, what did this self-titled record deliver?

This, I predict, will be a divisive review - in fact, I think a lot of reviews of this record will be pretty divisive. And I'm talking about the critical press here, not the fans - most of them will have grown up with One Direction and will be completely comfortable with the shift towards a different, more mature sound, even if it's one that only sounds vaguely familiar to them. Whereas with critics, I foresee the divide coming among those who are enraptured by the fact that Harry Styles is embracing a more critic-friendly sound instead of his boy band roots - or indeed anything that's making an obvious play for mainstream attention - versus the purists who will know exactly what he's pulling from and judge him that much harder against it. For me... I'm somewhere in between, and while I will not say he completely did this sound justice, there's enough solid craftsmanship here to acknowledge a pretty impressive effort, and I think I can agree with the majority of critics by saying this is easily the best full project of anything associated with One Direction.

So what does that mean for this album? Well, we have to start with the sound and production and by far the most fascinating part of this record, at least from a critical standpoint - because the more listens I gave it, this is not a pop record, at least not purely. It leans much closer to rock, specifically the many softer strains that ran through much of the 70s - and if you know the genre as well as I do, you'll spot parallels immediately. Hell, it might not be as actively progressive in its approach, but the tones and vocal layering and guitarwork on 'Meet Me In The Hallway' recall early Pink Floyd, and everyone and their mother has already pointed out the Bowie and Queen worship of 'Sign Of The Times'. But it goes deeper than that - 'Carolina' sounds like something Wings or George Harrison would have cut, 'Two Ghosts' is approaching the touches of Bakersfield country and maybe a little soft rock-era Chicago, 'Ever Since New York' is a cut where you can easily hear the Tom Petty and maybe a bit of U2, and 'Woman' is about as close of a 'Bennie & The Jets' parallel as you can get without ripping off Elton John. What will startle the most people are his stabs at swaggering classic rock like the Rolling Stones on 'Only Angel', or the touches of punk that creep into 'Kiwi', which come as a bit of jolt after 'Sweet Creature', which remains the worst song here if only because it doesn't really have that same unique 70s flavor and identity. 

And credit must be given where it's due, Jeff Bhasker and crew make it sound good - it's got nowhere near the bite or complexity of those older acts, but there's an art to making this feel cohesive, and there's a better flow to this album than there's any right to be. And on a compositional level, these are good songs, and it's very telling how the producers avoided any obvious gimmicks besides aping the sounds of forty years ago. Okay, maybe with the piano and squonking of 'Woman', but beyond that, solid warm acoustic textures, firm basslines, prominent melodies, good hooks, and if you like this sound, this is a well-produced version of it. I'll admit 'Sign Of The TImes' grew on me and earned its dramatic swell a little better, even if it is screaming out for a real meaty guitar solo, and between the soft acoustic crooning of 'Two Ghosts', and the balance of richer electric tones that come into 'Ever Since New York' with a killer multi-tracked hook, if that song is a single instead of 'Sweet Creature' it'll be a monster! Where things get more complicated are the more rock-driven songs, mostly because for as much 'Only Angel' feels like a cut from Sticky Fingers, Harry Styles isn't Mick Jagger. He's got charisma, pipes, and real range - I can see him sticking around, especially if this is the sort of music he makes - but rock in this vein in the 70s was lean and nasty and had real bite to it. Sure, give him five years of cigarettes, whiskey, and cocaine abuse and Styles might sound a little closer, but you're not going to fool me with a live vocal pickup that Styles is entirely convincing for this brand of rock - Ron Gallo and Kyle Craft have nothing to worry about here.

Of course, the larger factor of this comes in the writing, which if you don't remember those 70s records tended to be where singer-songwriters really distinguished themselves - and let's be real, despite a valiant effort, Styles isn't in that territory yet. And most of that is because I have a hard time getting a handle on who he really is as an artist and performer. Because let's make this clear, this sort of stylistic shift in today's day and age is a risk - instead of chasing trap or tropical sounds Harry Styles is following in the mold of a slightly more accessible Foxygen, and you don't see that from boy bands. But what he's trying to say with this record or who he really is as an artist... it's not really clear. You'd think because the album is bookended by breakup songs that don't shy away from good framing in the details - points to Styles for at least showing the lingering aftermath of a breakup isn't pleasant, and an opening verse where he wakes up alone, jerks off, goes back to sleep, and then gets plowed doesn't paint him in a good light - but that's also not really the case. If I'm going to criticize anything concrete about this record, it's that the writing is all over the place and can definitely skid towards cliche, and for as cohesive as the sound might feel the content does not. We get new love and plenty of sex on 'Carolina' and 'Only Angel' and 'Kiwi' - even if in the last case it feels a bad idea - we get fracturing relationships on 'Woman' and 'Sweet Creature', and then we get the aftermath on 'Two Ghosts' and 'Ever Since New York'. And I think it's telling why the last two connect with me the most, because they do feel grounded in something real that fell away and are handled with real maturity - and if it's true they were inspired by Styles' relationship with Taylor Swift... well, it's a glimpse to Styles' humanity and something real, and I can respect that.

So as a whole... yeah, I like this. I don't love it - in terms of 70s rock, I think Styles compromises his lyrical themes and ideas by taking a tour of the genre - but Styles is tapping into an older sound and has surrounded himself with a good enough team to create it convincingly, even if I'd argue he never surpasses it. As such, I think a 7/10 is appropriate, and I'm going to recommend this. I don't know if this will sell to One Direction fans or serve as a good entry point into this sort of rock, but there's a part of me that hopes it does, and if I wanted to endorse this record, that's all the reason I need. 

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