Review Summary: The former One Direction frontman turns out an ambitious and eclectic debut record, paying homage to his artistic influences while simultaneously providing a grab-bag of different avenues for his career to potentially follow in future.
Even those music fans most critical of today's pop music were likely taken off guard by former One Direction frontman Harry Styles's lead single from his eponymous debut record, the anthemic "Sign of the Times". Thrusting Oasis/Coldplay-esque production with some 70's Bowie-esque sensibility into a 2017 pop single was as left-field a move as the mainstream has seen in quite some time, and unsurprisingly, this combination of nostalgia and current artistic relevance led the single to a great deal of critical acclaim from older and younger music fans alike. And with Styles hinting in numerous interviews that the record throws back a lot to his artistic influences from decades past, it seemed that the teenage heartthrob had hit on a strong formula for his debut.
As a matter of fact, this throwback mentality ends up being Harry Styles
's biggest weakness. It's not that the gesture isn't appreciated or that Styles doesn't do a good job of executing the material, for neither could be further from the truth. But its derivative nature highlights Harry's relative artistic immaturity at this point; the record goes in a lot of different directions, exploring a lot of different ideas, but never really honing in on one in particular. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly it's expected of a 23 year-old artist trying to find his way as a solo performer, but it definitely is the primary thing preventing this record from being truly "great" overall.
What this record does have working in its favor is the sheer passion behind it; Styles never half-asses a number on here, delivering surprisingly strong vocal performances that far outclass anything he did in 1D. It's very apparent that Harry crafted this album intricately and with great care, something shown particularly well in the crystal-clear production. The sound and overall execution is exquisite, regardless of whether Styles is performing soaring epics like the aforementioned "Sign of the Times", tender acoustic numbers like the "Blackbird" rip-off "Sweet Creature" or the warm album closer "From the Dining Table", or tracks like "Carolina" that don't like to hang around any genre for more than a few measures (seriously, this track gives off acoustic/folk, funk, Calypso, and soaring "Sign of the Times"-esque epic feels at various points; I cannot pinpoint a static genre for the life of me). Occasionally the album's flow hiccups a little bit, such as with the inclusion of the country number "Two Ghosts", but it's never such a jarring change that the album's overall feel is completely lost.
One must take Harry Styles
for what it is: a debut album from a young artist attempting to tread his own musical pathway whilst paying tribute to some of his biggest musical influences in the process. When looking at it in this context, it becomes really easy to see the numerous things Harry does well here while forgiving the extremely derivative nature of many of the songs. As far as I'm concerned, it sets Styles up to have a really bright future, if only he can focus his attention onto a more singular sound. Should he be able to do this, and his career trajectory only continues to go up from here, we will all be in for a treat.