Even with all the pre-release chatter about the rock leanings and ’70s vibe of Harry Styles’ debut solo effort, few people probably predicted the 23-year-old ex-One Direction superstar to drop the kind of album that makes your uncle or your mom perk up, say “what’s that?” and buy a CD for themselves on their next trip to Target or Wal-Mart.
Yep, “Harry Styles” is that rare generation-spanning, forward-thinking retro album, one that nods to the past without garishly repeating it, apart from an occasional self-aware wink: Think Amy Winehouse, Justin Timberlake, and of course Adele, although he doesn’t sound much like any of them apart from the Adelesque grandiosity of the lead single, “Sign of the Times.”
But let’s not get into any premature “Next Adele” fever-dreams just yet. While the album doesn’t sound out of time, there’s really not much to place it in 2017: It’s loaded with acoustic guitars and has nary a trap beat, drop or apparently even an electronic drum. It even feels like an old-school vinyl album: In an era when many long-players have 18 songs and hover around the 70-minute mark, this one’s got an even 10 tracks and clocks in at 40 minutes, without feeling skimpy. It’s even, at least subconsciously, divided into sides: the softer side one and the rockier side two, which kicks off with the hard-riffing “Only Angel” (hell, the song’s even got a cowbell) and roars into the even ballsier “Kiwi” before downshifting for the final three tracks.
But despite the guitars and the hype about how “rock” “Harry Styles” is, it’s miles away from the Rolling Stones or even the sweeping rock anthems purveyed by two of this album’s patron saints, David Bowie and Queen. Instead, their influence is heard more in the cinematic sweep of the ballads, along with dashes of Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Nilsson (the arrangement on this album’s lead single, “Sign of the Times,” is more than a little reminiscent of his 1973 hit “Without You”; “Carolina” has some of his quirky charm) and even Badfinger — the guitar line in “Ever Since New York,” which is lifted almost directly from that group’s 1972 power-pop chestnut “Baby Blue,” surely is no accident.
The primary sonic architects here are executive producer Jeff Bhasker (Fun, Kanye West, Beyonce, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”) and two of his longtime associates, who bring even more diversity: co-producer/guitarist Alex Salibian worked with Young the Giant, country singer Cam and big-voiced pop thrush Elle King; co-producer Tyler Johnson’s studio pedigree includes OneRepublic and Ed Sheeran, and he wrote songs with or for Cam, Keith Urban, Miley Cyrus and John Legend. Yet that’s not to downplay the decisive mark Styles makes here: He co-wrote every song, played guitar and performed all of the vocals on several (check out his impressive stacked harmonies on “From the Dining Table”), and makes his mark as a strong and distinctive lead singer.
And there’s no question whose album this is: You never think for a second that he’s not doing exactly what he wants, as far as it may place him from the teen-pop realm that made him a superstar. And while there are definitely hits on the album — “Sign of the Times” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 — there’s nothing you’d exactly call a “banger.” In fact, the most likely second single from the album, the acoustic lilt “Two Ghosts,” is closer to contemporary country than pop radio (and not just because it’s supposedly about his ex, Taylor Swift).
So the big question here is where this leaves Styles’ millions of young fans. The rapturous critical response and receptive ears in later generations thus far speak to the album’s quality and generation-spanning appeal (and it’s safe to say that Eagles manager Irving Azoff, father and partner of Styles’ manager Jeffrey Azoff, knows how to market to an older audience). But will the kids come along? Will “Harry Styles” be the summer soundtrack for bonding moments between rebellious teens and their parents, or will the kids feel he’s abandoned them? Indeed, he sings “I’ve never felt less cool” on the closer, “From the Dining Table.”
Time will tell. But either way, Styles has made a bold and brave statement of intent that completely reinvents him as an artist — and leaves a wide-open road for whatever he might want to do next.