We all know who he is—or do we? On the cover of his self-titled album Harry Styles is rather naked and definitely distressed: the singer bares his back to us in a pool of murky pink water, his downcast head inside cupped hands, a soaking wet study in vulnerability and penitence. The face, hair, and tattooed torso adored by millions across the globe are hidden almost with a trace of shame; the overall impression this image leaves is that of the star’s sensitivity as opposed to sexiness, a most unusual choice for someone so young, popular, and attractive.
Yet, from where he is standing—at the edge of professional rebirth and adulthood, shouldering the crushing weight of fame and public preconceptions re his music, put bluntly doubt towards his talent and authenticity—the choice of image couldn’t be more fitting. Fangirls will follow him to the ends of the earth, but how to transition from the world’s biggest boyband’s biggest heartthrob to aspiring rocker sans ridicule from non-Directioners?
First, look the part. This he did, with the hippest help: edgy mag Another Man. Harry Styles 2.0 was unveiled with a series of indie-aesthetic photoshoots that paid homage to Mick Jagger, revisited classic British looks, and even covered contemporary high fashion, all of which he pulled off with flying colours because that cheeky adorkability he so charmingly commands happens to ooze alt-rock cool if he is dressed as such. The next step in the transformation requires actual substance, in this case good music, and, to the shocking delight of rock purists older than he, the boy delivered.
Styles’ lead single “Sign of the Times” is a blazing comet of a comeback that struck outside the narrow field of expectation set by music critics and connoisseurs who, in response, rushed to describe the song as a Bowie-meets-Queen 70s-inspired rock anthem. The last time we heard him he was still belting out tired pop formulas with One Direction; Zayn Malik had left and the remaining four were sapped of all the viral energy that fuelled five albums, four global tours, and countless television appearances. In its heyday the tween frenzy that followed 1D worldwide sparked catchy comparisons to Beatlemania, to the disdain of cynics who, I suspect, now find themselves begrudgingly foot-drumming to Styles’ epic jam.
The song, an instant hit, erased whatever stain being in a mainstream, manufactured boyband left on the star in the eyes of snobbish naysayers. Lyrically a call to disarm (“We never learn/We’ve been here before/Why are we always stuck and running from/The bullets, the bullets”), it conveys the same apocalyptic doom as its cover image—Styles torso-deep in ocean water the colour of murky, bloody sunset, his back to us, presumably the last man on earth, shouldering humanity’s collective regret.
Musically the song is upbeat in the timeless manner of age-defying rock anthems and soars in to lift our spirits after despondent morphine cry “Meet Me in the Hallway” opens the album with Styles’ hollow-voiced take on brokenness, apparently that of a love-starved man or drug addict craving his next fix: “‘Cause once you go without it/Nothing else will do.”
On “Two Ghosts” the gliding guitar is the sole star, upstaging the song’s rumoured blue-eyed, red-lipped subject. Its reference to Taylor Swift’s Red era look is a sly grab for attention, but so is naming your song “Style” after dating a boy with the word’s plural for a last name. Coincidentally (or not: perhaps there is no accident in art, only influence, actual or perceived), “Ever Since New York” gives off “Begin Again” vibes through its musical arrangement and mood; even the title sounds Swiftian.
Appropriately, a new beginning is just what he wanted, and precisely what he achieved with this ten-track foray into rock. This—the singer’s rockability—shines brightest on his rowdier, raunchier tracks, ones that betray his love for The Rolling Stones, the sprightly frontman of which he famously resembles and even imitated on Saturday Night Live. “Only Angel”‘s sleek transition from Ghost era Coldplay into classic Rolling Stones material is catchy enough for listeners to overlook its cliched title and lyrics while cheeky crowd pleaser “Kiwi” delivers a rock ‘n’ roll punch thanks to his raw, youthful energy, those woo-hoos he threw in for good measure and, more than anything, its central, nonsensical lines “I’m having your baby/It’s none of your business.” “Carolina”, a song about “such a good girl” who “feels so good” is, despite or perhaps because of its lyrical simplicity, a feel-good tune with an aww-inspiring backstory: he met this girl once and wrote a song about her. “Woman”, on the other hand, pounds out possessive masculine jealousy with a stadium-ready rhythm and verges on the poetic towards the end, with “While he’s touching your skin/This thing upon me/Howls like a beast/You flower, you feast” recalling the works of singer-songwriter contemporaries like Hozier and Jake Bugg.
Having tapped our feet and nodded our heads to the beat of “Woman” we find ourselves caught unawares by the bleak heartbreak and instrumental twang of “From the Dining Table”, a stripped-back acoustic confessional in which we find the singer masturbating in a lonely hotel room, wasted and woebegone. The unguardedness of his voice and the intimately personal nature of the lyrics it sings—to the listener and the listener alone it seems—takes us back to the image of Styles on the cover, reminding us that Harry Styles is a candid of the singer on the cusp of adulthood, eager to leave his boyband days behind and dive into the cooler, edgier rock scene.
Yet, what’s so endearingly Harry about Harry—his sensitivity, softness, and occasional edge—has remained, no doubt a comfort to fans as well as friends and family (doting mother Anne’s favourite song off the album is “Sweet Creature”). ‘This is who I am,’ the album says; ‘this is who I want to be.’ Whether he becomes a leader or follower on the alternative scene remains to be seen but if the album’s anything to go by, Styles’ solo direction is something for all of us to look forward to, including himself. It truly is a sign of the times.