Harry Styles doesn’t just want to be a rock star – he wants to be the rock star. And on his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself – instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe. No club-hopping or bottles popping – it’s the after-hours balladry of a 23-year-old star wondering why he spends so much time in lonely hotel rooms staring at his phone. Harry digs so deep into classic California mellow gold, you might suspect his enigmatic new tattoos that say “Jackson” and “Arlo” refer to Browne and Guthrie.
“You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky,” he warns early on in “Sign of the Times,” but the sky is where he’s aiming, and his sheer brazen confidence is dazzling – he never sounds like he’s trying too hard or scrounging for cred, which is where boy-band alumni usually screw up their solo records. The whole album has the personal yet witty spirit of the cover photo, where a topless Harry has a moment of doubt and pain in a bathtub full of pink unicorn tears. (His original title was Pink, because it’s “the only true rock & roll color.”) He spends a lot of the album wet, actually – whether it’s tears, other bodily fluids, or just “candy dripping on me till my feet are wet.”
Harry’s soft-rock fetish won’t surprise fans of One Direction gems like “Olivia” or “Stockholm Syndrome,” but this is the first time we’ve heard Sweet Baby Styles run with it for a whole album. The songs he tipped in advance didn’t play coy about his old-school inspirations – the Badfinger hook of “Ever Since New York,” the “Blackbird” guitar of “Sweet Creature,” the way “Sign of the Times” tweaks Queen and Bowie in candelabra mode – yet they all sound like him, playful and tender in equal measure. In most of these songs, he mourns a dead-end relationship, the kind where “comfortable silence is so overrated,” and you can hear that he’s been binging on singer-songwriter confessionals from Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmillson to Taylor Swift’s Red. “Meet Me In The Hallway” sets the tone – a touch of John Lennon echo in his voice, a touch of Jimmy Page in the acoustic guitar – as he pleads like a love junkie craving a fix. “Carolina” rides a tropical low-rider summer groove, while the lovelorn “Two Ghosts” could pass for vintage Bread. “Woman” could be a lost slow-jam duet between Prince and Joe Walsh, as Harry asks, “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we can find?”
He dabbles in hard rock raunch with “Kiwi” (“She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect”) and “Only Angel.” Yet he sounds brassiest, most confident, most himself when he gets vulnerable. He ends with “From the Dining Table,” an acoustic lament where he wakes up alone in yet another hotel room. (“Played with myself, where were you?/I fell back asleep and was drunk by noon/I’ve never felt less cool.”) Through it all, he manages to steer clear of all the traps that ordinarily sabotage a boy-band star’s solo move. But as the whole album proves, there’s not a thing ordinary about this guy.