“I wanted to see if I could write something that people liked, without knowing everything about me,” says Harry Styles in a documentary about the making of his first solo record.
Of course, the number of people who are unfamiliar with former One Direction heartthrob and paparazzi magnet Harold Edward Styles, are few and far between – but in accordance with boy band tradition, he’s wiped the slate clean for his solo debut.
The first single, Sign of the Times, is a billowing rock ballad about a woman dying during labour (yes, really), adorned with blazing guitar solos and a choir singing from the gates of heaven.
Stylophiles will know it’s the sort of song he’s wanted to make for years – having worked with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody as far back as 2013 – but there’s always a delicate balance between establishing your musical credentials and subliminally telling fans, “That pop music? The stuff that soundtracked your life? I thought it was naff.”
So far he’s gotten away with it. Sign of the Times went to number one and his self-titled album will undoubtedly punch an Ed Sheeran-sized hole in the charts next week. But the real test is whether those songs will stick around the week after that, and the week after that.
The album is a mixed bag – good, odd, awkward and clever. Here’s our verdict on the 10 tracks.
1) Meet Me in the Hallway
Harry counts in the opening song – “2… 3… 4…” – because that is how real musicians do it.
The band come in with a gentle finger-picked guitar and a few ambient synth bleeps as Harry’s drowsy lyric establishes the album’s main theme – two lovers who have fallen out of sync with each other.
“Maybe we’ll work it out,” he sings in the chorus. “I gotta get better.”
It’s a strong, confident opening that sets the tone for what follows.
2) Sign of the Times
You know this one already – a weepy, six-minute piano ballad that nods to Queen, Bowie and Prince, with a rather unconventional lyric.
“The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there’s a complication,” Harry told Rolling Stone.
“The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.'”
We’re not sure why she sings about “running away from the bullets”, though.
After two pensive ballads, this pulse-raising rock number is a breath of fresh air. With its snaky bassline and playful, Muppety backing vocals, it sounds very much like Wings playing Stuck in the Middle With You.
Speaking of which, the pedigree of Harry’s influences can’t be faulted on this album – he’s clearly delved into rock’s back catalogue for sustenance and, although he sometimes fails to put his own stamp on those songs, his love of the music shines through.
This one features some of his best lyrics, about a girl who “gets into parties without invitations”.
“How could I tell her what I think about her?” he sings, before realising this song will be played around the world… “Well, I guess she just found out.”
4) Two Ghosts
Fans have long suspected that when Taylor Swift’s Style – with its lyrics about a boy with “long hair, slicked back, and a white T-shirt” – was about Harry Styles. So this song, in which one of the characters wears that “same white shirt”, is bound to set tongues wagging.
Whether it’s about the couple’s failed relationship or not, Swift’s influence is apparent in the storied lyrics, which describe a couple who’ve become “two ghosts, standing in the place of you and me, trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat”.
5) Sweet Creature
In which Harry reveals he has listened to, and enjoyed, the song Blackbird by The Beatles.
That said, this is the album’s most effective, direct song – a folksy ballad about a lover who’s a lifeline.
“When I run out of rope, you bring me home,” he sings over a sprightly guitar line.
It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to discover this was Harry’s long-rumoured collaboration with Ed Sheeran – but, in fact, it’s a co-write with erstwhile Skrillex collaborator Kid Harpoon.
6) Only Angel
A sweeping, orchestral introduction suddenly gives way to a Rolling Stones rock hustle, complete with hollered “woo-hoo”s and copious amounts of cowbell.
Indeed, Harry goes full Jagger in this song, about a girl who claims to be an angel but is a “devil in the sheets”.
“Couldn’t bring you home to mother in a skirt like that,” he drawls, “but I think that’s what I like about it.”
It’s easy to imagine this as the album’s opening track in an earlier configuration.
A partner piece to Only Angel, this is another song about an irresistible bad girl, who tells Harry she’s having his baby “but it’s none of your business”.
The loudest, rawest track on the album, it’s faintly ridiculous, but bound to go down a treat at live shows.
And the rumour mill will have a field day with that title – given that one of Harry’s (rumoured) ex-girlfriends is New Zealand-born lingerie model Georgia Fowler.
8) Ever Since New York
After the glam rock rush of Only Angel and Kiwi, its back to the ballads with this jittery track, which Harry premiered on Saturday Night Live last month.
Once again, it finds the star wandering the streets of Brooklyn, fretting over the state of his relationship.
It’s pretty stodgy stuff, elevated only by Harry’s supple backing vocals.
Woman opens with a snatch of conversation: “Shall we just search for romantic comedies on Netflix and then see what we find?”
It sets the tone for the album’s quirkiest song, whose menagerie of sounds includes what appears to be an asthmatic duck.
Over a backing track that recalls the juddering stomp of Elton John’s Benny and the Jets, Harry issues a plea to a girlfriend who’s run off with someone else.
“I hope you can see the state that I’m in while he’s touching your skin,” he pleads, before confessing his jealousy “howls like a beast”.
10) From the Dining Table
The album closes with – you guessed it – a ballad about a relationship on the rocks.
This one is more reflective, as Harry sings sotto voce about waking up alone in his hotel room (and, in a frankly unnecessary detail, “playing with myself”).
“Even my phone misses your call,” he sighs wearily in the chorus.
A hopeful mid-section is all blossoming, Beatles-esque strings and gorgeous harmonies as the singer fantasises: “Maybe one day you’ll call me and tell me you’re sorry.” But the facade collapses and he’s left alone and bereft as the album fades out.
It’s a subdued ending to an album that strains to establish Harry Styles as a credible musician.
Taken as a whole, it just about works, often in spite of itself – and there’s certainly something intriguing about the idea of Harry as a tortured rock balladeer.
But we’d still like to see him do Best Song Ever when he tours later this year.
Harry Styles is out now on Columbia records.