On “Walls,” Louis Tomlinson steps into a pop landscape very different from that of 2016, when One Direction announced its hiatus. The other members have since cracked through their molds and carved their own identities away from the band: Zayn Malik was out the door before 1D hit the pause button, and had already formulated a moody R&B persona. Harry Styles spiked the dad-rock kool-aid, and proved himself deserving of the starring role. Niall Horan leapt headlong into folk-pop, and Liam Payne hung out with Quavo and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Boy bands thrive off selling typified identities that allow listeners to find the one that they identify with.
So with the weight of a debut and the shadow of a beloved past, what post-1D ID does Tomlinson opts for? “Britpop Everyman.” But while he captures some of the highs of heartfelt, arena-ready pomp, “Walls” too often feels like a Xerox of a Xerox without clear statement of self.
The eagerness to live in a golden-hued past makes sense as a response to Tomlinson’s life leading up to the record’s creation. Tragedy could be factor in the late delivery of “Walls,” compared to his bandmates’ solo debuts. Tomlinson’s grief and growth after the passing of his mother in 2016 figures into the album’s centerpiece, the piano-driven “2 of Us.” “I will be the best of me, always keep you next to me / I’ll be living one life for the two of us,” he sings, the darkness kept just far away by the certainty of his mother looking over him. The sudden passing of his teenaged sister just six days after the song was released as a single makes the track that much more powerful. Tomlinson shines brightest when he taps so plainly into the essence of who he is, condensed and shared in heartbreaking detail. It’s one direct Louis.
Inspiration takes another turn on the title track, in which Tomlinson is deeply indebted to Noel Gallagher — so much so that, a week out from release date, news broke that the elder statesman was given a writing credit on “Walls.” While Gallagher may not have literally been in the room, the grand ballad certainly resembles an over-glossed Oasis, particularly “Acquiesce” (with “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” and “Cast No Shadow” called out as other tracks from the long-gone band getting an homage in the track), so it’s no surprise that Gallagher had to sign off (and ultimately financially benefit from) such an overt tribute.
Elsewhere, Tomlinson tries to evoke the glory days of the ‘90s without a strong, single, unifying inspiration to lean on. Opener “Kill My Mind” sets the modernized Britpop tone, the familiar cymbal-heavy percussion threaded through with polished harmonies. “You kill my mind / Raise my body back to life / And I don’t know what I’d do without you now,” he repeats on the chorus, devoid of the pain or passion those words imply. When Tomlinson sings in hyperbole and desperate metaphor, the delivery doesn’t hold believable intensity. Those lines feel like a zombified copy of somebody else’s experience.
Similarly, multi-tracked “ooh-aah” choruses and even a few Lumineers-esque “Hey!”s have mutated into his Oasis pastiche, blurring the personal connection. In the early going, the album struggles to get past its own walls; outside of “2 of Us”, there’s not much to differentiate the emotions or musical palette of the tracks.
A switch is flipped on the buoyant strumming of “Habit”, a track that reaches festival-field grandiosity in subtle instrumentation and real emotional depth. “Never thought that giving up would be so hard / But God, I’m missing you and your addictive heart,” he sings. He doesn’t need to belt it out, or layer it over a trap beat and EDM synths. This is Tomlinson not trying to be anything or anyone else.
The syncopated “Always You” takes another swing at that comfy contentedness, though going decidedly bigger in its harmonies. The references to LAX and Heathrow, Tokyo and Amsterdam are sprinkled around like fragments of a past life, while he returns back to the only home he needs: the heart of his love. Meanwhile, “Fearless” is a belter, Tomlinson letting loose vocally and allowing some burn to creep into his otherwise tight control.
“You just keep building up your fences, but I’ve never been so defenseless,” Tomlinson insists on “Defenseless.” One track later, on the closer “Only the Brave,” he doubles down. “It’s a church of burnt romances and I’m too far gone to pray,” he sings, the smile growing. “It’s a solo show and it’s only for the brave.” These are songs about what it takes to stand on your own, but singing two overlapping songs about tearing down your walls doesn’t equate to exploring the person you discovered on the other side.
Solo debuts with this much expectation are incredible challenges. While “Walls” isn’t a craven ripoff or an attempt to recapture One Direction highs, it’s not yet clear exactly who Tomlinson is without them.