Nothing makes for a better story than the idea of a Chosen One, a Messiah picked from among regular people to disciple the world. And boy bands are known for them—some who do better than others. Nick Lachey and Nick Carter, expected to become emissaries after their careers in 98 Degrees and Backstreet Boys, respectively, both floundered in the early 2000s. The hope for One Direction has always been that the Chosen One would follow the same path as pop icons like Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. And Harry Styles is their best bet. The songs he wrote while in One Direction were all hits.
By the time he started his first solo album he’d already been crowned a pop music icon because of his failed relationship with Taylor Swift. The amount of ammunition Harry Styles was carrying to start a mammoth pop career was unbelievable: He had the fanbase, the popularity, the look, and the relationship history to create headlines for weeks. Which is why it’s so impressive that he didn’t.
On his debut album Harry Styles, released last Friday, Styles didn’t try to fill a stadium tour. Instead his sparse, 40-minute debut album is a statement of personhood, a declaration that Harry Styles isn’t a member of One Direction anymore. He doesn’t want to be that group’s Justin Timberlake. He wants to be its John Lennon, a fitting ambition for maybe the product of Britain’s biggest cultural export since The Beatles.
One Direction was a behemoth of pop. The band of five young men corralled together by Simon Cowell’s golden eye on The X Factor rocketed to fame. They sold a ridiculous number of albums, toured internationally, and became the most buzzed about boy band today. It’s hard to believe they did it all in just five years before everything began to fall apart. In March 2014, Zayn Malik left the band and became the first to pursue a solo career, the inevitable path for every boy band member. That fall, the band—now four members—put out another album, but their group had began to fracture.
And it became obvious that even though Zayn had the running start, Harry Styles was the man to beat. In December 2015, the band appeared on James Corden’s The Late Late Show. As part of a gimmick, Corden gets the band to play a game called Tattoo Roulette, where they all pick boxes at random and whoever’s box betrays them has to get a tattoo live on air. The comedy comes from blonde-haired Niall Horan who has no tattoos and is terrified the entire sketch. But the star, undeniably, is Harry Styles, flipping his long hair over his head, laughing, but calm. He is the big loser, obviously; To pick another member would have been to miss out on the best kind of billboard space. Even as the motor for the tattoo gun starts and his skin is prepped, Styles is at ease. He laughs with Corden, a good sport through and through, and cringes as the burning needle hits his skin leaving him with the words “Late Late” branded on his arm forever. He was, in a word, untouchable.
What’s clear in the sketch is how good of a grip Styles had on himself, how he could not only assume an air of coolness and calm, but project it through pain onscreen. It’s no wonder that his debut is so certain, so confident it radiates assurance from every song. Though he’s insisted he began the project with no clear game plan, Harry Styles is one of the most consistent, vulnerable albums produced this year. Unlike the One Direction songs he wrote —“Steal My Girl,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” “Story of My Life,” “What Makes You Beautiful,” and “Perfect”—none of the gimmicks popular in Top 40 hits are present on this album. There is no EDM, very little auto-tune, and nothing in the way of musical hooks. What’s catchy, throughout the album, is Styles himself.
From the album’s very opening chords on “Meet Me In the Hallway” to the closing moments of “From the Dining Table,” Harry Styles is a comforting, sparsely decorated journey back in time. This album—part folk, part country, part classic rock—is ambitious in its delicacy. It was clear, from the first released song “Sign of the Times,” that Styles was not trying to play into anyone’s expectations of him. At almost six minutes long, “Sign of the Times” is almost twice the length of an average pop song, and with far more open space. Built out of basics tied carefully together, “Sign of the Times” has a roar like crashing waves, that never feels overproduced.
Every song on Harry Styles is built of the same elements: a guitar, some atmospheric elements probably brought by Jeff Bhasker (Taylor Swift’s Red, Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, Kanye’ West’s 808s & Heartbreak), a gentle piano, and Styles’s voice. He is the hook that ties all of this work together, from the sweeping bridge on “Sign of the Times,” to his Jagger-like crooning on “Only Angel.” By the third song, the folk-y “Carolina,” the album reveals that though all the songs obviously fit together, they have the kind of range that only comes with a deep love of music, curated by a single, discerning ear. Here, you can hear the throwback to Gerry Rafferty of the Steelers Wheel, the percussive callbacks to Beck’s early work.
Queen and Bowie are the patron saints of Harry Styles. Though Bhasker, says they didn’t consciously channel either, the hearts of those influences show up vividly throughout the album. But Styles seems closer in spirit and in heart to the quieter rock of the ‘70s on the brassy, Led Zepplin-inspired “Only Angel.” There are elements here of Fleetwood Mac, or Badfinger, or even Elton John. Styles has always loved soft-rock. He helped write One Direction’s “Olivia” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” but to do it for a whole album is to brand himself, to declare himself not a pop star, but a rock star.
As the album opens up before you, the songs all staying around the 4-minute mark, take their time building up into emotions. The ballad “Two Ghosts”—with 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”—is all of the vulnerability of a perfect break-up song hiding under lyrics that mimic Pink Floyd.
Harry Styles was beloved before this album was released. But now it’s clear that love was shallow. We couldn’t love the real Harry Styles because we didn’t know the real Harry Styles. That person shines through on this album in moments of true vulnerability. On the album’s last track “From the Dining Table,” Styles gently sings “played with myself, where were you / Fell back to sleep, I got drunk by noon / I’ve never felt less cool.” Before this, it would have been impossible to think of Harry Styles, a 23-year-old superstar covered in tattoos, as anything but unbelievably cool. That vulnerability is what makes Harry Styles impressive. Instead of trying to maintain a veneer of untouchability, of going for glitz and glamour and over-production, Styles has tried to show the listener who he really is: a man who is vulnerable, soft, and unbelievably talented.