Monday, October 23, 2017

album review: 'flicker' by niall horan

I think I've been looking forward to this record more than... well, pretty much everyone else. And that's not entirely surprising - if you've followed One Direction's career arc, Niall Horan didn't really seem to stand out. Liam and Louis had more writing credits, Zayn and Harry seemed to have more personality and wanted to make bigger statements, with admittedly mixed results. Hell, even when I covered his debut single 'This Town', I expressed some surprise that he was out of the gate ahead of Harry and Liam, who would both go on to having more success throughout this year.

And yet there was an odd part of me that actually kind of liked this guy. I didn't think his writing was stellar but he seemed to have good instincts and a decent sense of maturity. And I liked many of his collaborators - I've always thought Tobias Jesso Jr. is better behind the scenes than on his own work, there's a credit from Dan Wilson formerly of Semisonic, somehow he managed to get a guest appearance from Maren Morris, and for as much as Greg Kurstin has frustrated me over 2017, for this sort of understated acoustic project I hoped he would be a good fit. On top of that, it was just over a half hour - it didn't seem to have the ambition to go huge that Harry and Zayn did, and if the writing was good, maybe smaller stakes could serve him well. So okay, did we get anything worthwhile out of Flicker?

Folks, I know so many of you won't believe this, but I'd argue this is pretty damn close to the best project associated with One Direction released thus far. No, I'm not kidding, I'd handily take this over nearly every One Direction project or either of the albums from Harry and Zayn, and while I'm not surprised that a lot of critics are dismissing it - especially in the UK - I am pretty disappointed they have. Granted, I'll freely admit that most of my liking for this record is coming from its very particular lineage and sound that just so happens to resonate particularly well for me, but at the same time, Niall Horan has released the sort of deceptively sharp soft rock record that has the potential to quietly get really big - and deservingly so, I should add.

And what's important to emphasize with Flicker is that it's not a complicated record - not by a long shot. The content falls in either hookups or breakups, played with the sort of straightforward earnestness and framing that doesn't try for deeper layers... mostly because they aren't essential and likely got pared away in the refinement process, a classic example of less being a whole lot more. Granted, the only reason this is ever considered as an excuse is if the presentation backs it up - and for the most part it does. The writing avoids obvious missteps in lyrical construction and despite some moments that can test my patience like the post-breakup inquiries 'Too Much To Ask', there's enough heartfelt detail that aims for universality without feeling bland or too obvious - yes, the closer 'You And Me' can feel on the nose and kind of presumptuous, but Niall brings enough maturity and self-awareness to actively take responsibility for an unusual and testing career and then asks what he can do to convince her it'll work? And really, that maturity is a pretty solid grounding presence here, from lingering acknowledgements that he has to move on with 'This Town' to overdone expectations on 'Paper Houses' to actually sounding convincing at facing the problems in the relationship on 'Fire Away' - no, it's not quite better than Chris Stapleton's version with the same title which has grown on me considerably, but it's still effective. Hell, even though 'On The Loose' is clearly trying to be Hall & Oates' 'Maneater' blended with Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game' and updated for 2017, it's smart enough to crib notes from The Weeknd's 'False Alarm' in highlighting how he's fallen multiple times for this girl. And it helps that by playing for understated tones, he can rely much more easily on natural charisma - he's never going to command a room in the same way as Harry can, but the sincerity behind 'This Town', the pain that feels genuine on the title track and 'Paper Houses', hell, even some of the playfulness of 'Slow Hands' comes through in the smaller space.

But now we have to deal with the real reason why this record connects for me, and something you might not have noticed from the opening singles: the production and sound, because like Harry did, Niall Horan's Flicker is clearly indebted to the past. And whereas Harry Styles was aiming for a half-dozen different styles, Niall's is laser-focused: this is a record that more often than not wants to sound like early 80s Fleetwood Mac, with a few glances back to Rumors to boot. Now Mirage is not my favourite Fleetwood Mac project by a longshot, especially coming after the wild experimentation of Tusk, but the sound still naturally clicks for me: the guitar-driven melodic grooves with just enough tastefully smooth instrumentation to back up real basslines, the vocal interplay and harmonies that with both Maren Morris on 'Seeing Blind' and Bridget Sarai on 'Since We're Alone' Niall is so desperate to emulate, and of course, hooks that almost seem insidiously designed to get in your head. I know it's a low bar, but considering how much reverb-swamped, percussion-over-melody pop I've covered over the past four years, it's a welcome treat when Niall and his crew actually write songs with a tune, from the pop country leaning tunes of 'Seeing Blind' and 'Fire Away' to the most naked Fleetwood Mac imitations like 'Since We're Alone' - and yes, it definitely helps that frequent cowriter Julian Bunetta is adapting tones he refined over the last two One Direction records, but they're easily the instincts that made the best of their material, drawing inspiration without feeling like a direct rip-off. Now that's not saying all the production works: the oddly clipped vocal pickup on the verses of 'Slow Hands' remains annoying, the flattened or reversed 90s-esque electric tones on 'You And Me' reflect a style that doesn't really fit with the rest of this record, and despite good texture you do get the sense that the percussion is still a shade too loud at spots. More urgently, it's a shame that Niall doesn't really bring some of the energy or bite that made Fleetwood Mac at their best - I get he's going for low-key charm, but he could have definitely afforded to add a bit more bite.

But as a whole... look, it's impressively easy to dismiss records like this. It's middlebrow, it's basic, it's not challenging or adventurous, and if you're going in expecting this to be a pure market calculation... well, you've already made up your mind, I'm not going to change it. But it's hard for me to listen to this and not see an impressively refined and effective record that knows exactly what it is, owns the lane comfortably, and delivers a short but remarkably solid release. The tones call back to the past but never feel like a throwback, the writing is simple but with enough mature detail and poise to stick with you, and Niall is a sincere enough performer to feel entirely convincing with these tunes. And with those hooks, it's hard to deny that this record succeeds impressively in everything it tries to do, especially for a solo debut that has more consistent grooves and writing than anything One Direction has ever released - hell, probably more than most of Ed Sheeran and his rip-offs' work too. So yeah, I know this might be controversial, but this is a 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation - it's a great record and right now Niall has proven the most fully-formed as an artist post boy band. Can't wait to hear more, man, fine work indeed.

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