It’s The Glimpses Into His Private Life That Makes Harry Styles’ Album So Compelling
Harry's all grown up and singing about masturbation.
Following up a highly successful album is a daunting task. Do you stick to what you know and stay comfortable, or do you push outside the box and risk monumental failure?
In other words, how do you avoid the dreaded ‘Second Album Syndrome’?
For Harry Styles, the problem isn’t just shaking the shadow of one big album — he’s following up an entire career. Since 2011 Styles has been at the centre of the One Direction hurricane, releasing album after album of dizzily-successful pop music and touring the globe, pursued all the while by rabid fans. Since 16 he has been in the spotlight, and now — at the ripe old age of 23 — he’s one of the most recognisable faces on the planet.
After being a cog in the boy-band machine for so long, how do you even begin to approach something as daunting as a debut album? How do you begin to view yourself outside of that prism? How the hell can you start to be yourself?
Even more to the point, how do you work up enough confidence to release a self-titled debut album — as definitive a musical proclamation as they come?
If you’re Harry Styles, the answer is to move as far away from your past as you can.
A Game Of Musical Influence Bingo
Over 10 tracks and a quick 40 minutes, Styles puts One Direction in the rearview mirror — trading in sugary synths and drum tracks for scratchy acoustic guitars and early ’70s California rock.
“Those expecting pre-packaged pop best turn away now”
Styles, a ’60s and ’70s rock fanatic, has taken the best bits from his heroes and repurposed them for a modern audience. Those expecting pre-packaged pop best turn away now.
Listening to the album becomes a game of musical influence bingo — oh, there are the guitars from Revolver’s ‘Taxman’, there’s the Jefferson Airplane twang, there’s David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, there’s the entire rhythm section lifted from Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ (on the track ‘Carolina’). It’s a walk down memory lane, led by a guy in his early 20s.
He ventures further into rock on the ballsy ‘Kiwi’ and ‘Woman’, delivering classical Lothario lines like: “She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect”, and “broke a finger knocking on your bedroom door/I got splinters in my knuckles crawling ‘cross the floor”.
There’s even the obligatory sleaze: “I’m just happy getting you stuck between my teeth.” You can almost see him on stage right now, shaking a tambourine like his idol Mick Jagger.
Tiny Glimpses Into The Private Life Of A Star
Where Harry Styles becomes truly interesting is when the 23 year old stops his Jagger posturing and lets his guard down.
His voice (which it must be said, is excellent) takes on a vulnerable huskiness on tracks like opener ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’ and the stunning closer ‘From The Dining Table’, with Styles recounting endless nights spent alone and lonely in nondescript hotel rooms. These moments — the tiny glimpses into the private life of one of the world’s biggest pop stars — are the real gems of the album.
“These tiny glimpses into the private life of one of the world’s biggest pop stars are the real gems of the album”
Styles wears misery well. Lines like “We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me/Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat” avoid being trite when delivered by an earnest Styles. Even better is when he nails that familiar feeling of dealing with a relationship that’s on the rocks: “comfortable silence is so overrated.”
Inevitably, these songs will be pored over for any details of Styles’ private life. Even on the morning of its release, the BBC pushed him to reveal whether ‘Two Ghosts’ was about his ex-girlfriend, Taylor Swift. The main clue was apparently this lyric: “Same lips, red/Same eyes, blue.”
Styles was noticeably uncomfortable, stumbling over a response, eventually admitting the song was “self-explanatory”.
Whether it’s about Swift or not doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that Styles is all torn up on this album, dealing with a tumultuous first relationship and the inevitable heartbreak, all while he tries to navigate his awkward early-20s while being the biggest star on the planet. Like the cover of the album itself, there are pink tears all over this thing.
For someone who admits to being obsessed with mysteriousness, there are many moments of frankness here — like when he abruptly drops in a lyric about masturbation in the closing track: “Woke up by myself, in this hotel room/Played with myself, where were you?”
Sung over a quiet acoustic guitar, it’s almost laughable in its incongruousness. But then again, if Harry Styles is attempting to prove his ‘realness’, then baring all is what it’s going to take.
Harry Styles achieves everything it was created to do.
It defines Styles as a solo artist and positions him far away from the careers of his former bandmates, who have mostly continued down the slick pop road (see Zayn’s Mind Of Mine). It aggressively asserts Styles’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘rawness’, right down to the scratchy guitar fretboard sounds have been left in the quieter tracks — as if Styles is desperate for us to know this is unpolished and unplugged.
“Styles is desperate for us to know this is unpolished and unplugged”
The overtness of the album’s influences is sometimes distracting (you often spend more time wondering what song it sounds like, rather than listening to the song itself), that doesn’t take away from how enjoyable it is. It might be a patchwork, but Styles’ presence is enough to sew it together.
So say goodbye to Styles the pop star, and hello to Styles to rock god.
Jules LeFevre is a writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She tweets at @jules_lefevre.