Review Summary: And we danced all night to the ok-est song ever
Harry Styles has so much potential
. His music is full of ideas that seem to want to push the borders of what pop music could be, much less the pop-music that comes from the solo outing of a former boy band member. When talking about his influences, he cites artists like Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Tame Impala, and The Beatles, all of which isn’t just lip service - These influences are clearly found in his music, from the classic rock stylings of his self-titled debut or the 70s psychedelic pop tinge of Fine Line. His previous output showed a pop artist who wasn’t scared to take risks, but could still craft a hook that would dominate airwaves, with Fine Line pushing more boundaries than even his debut, but still staying comfortably in the pop accessibility wheel house.
follows that chronology, finding Styles leaning into 80s synth pop and seemingly trying to take even more risks, abandoning the big choruses for detailed production and a vibed-out aesthetic. Where the issue lies, however, is that Harry's House
takes the safest versions of all of those attempted risks. Whether this is because Styles is still trying to find his own voice, is being held back by his own artistic limits, or because this is still a major-label, carefully crafted pop album that has to make a large profit, Harry's House
is a breezy, sanitized version of what could be a much more interesting album.
There’s no doubt that Styles will absolutely crush these songs live, but their recorded versions seem to be holding back and almost scared to take the next step into “experimental” (whatever that word means) pop. It’s easy to imagine crowds going crazy when the horns come out during “Music For a Sushi Restaurant”, but in the recording they’re so glossily produced as to sound almost fake. The opener features flourishes in production and background layered vocals that are fun and seem to be a natural if not fully fleshed out progression from “Watermelon Sugar” until “Late Night Talking” comes on and pulls from all of the same cues but in a much better-written song that still doesn’t inspire much excitement. “Little Freak” tries to pull some Bon Iver-inspired layered vocals at the beginning before immediately giving up and relying on the layered harmonies that are found on almost every song. This is the real thesis of the production - Just different enough for folks to be able to say “Hey, this is different”, without actually being all that different.
Rarely does a song go by on Harry’s House
without some sort of groovy baseline, whispered falsetto from Styles, and assorted whimsical production assertions, all fun things that start to feel much less fun when you keep hearing them over and over and over. This is Styles’s most sonically consistent album, but largely because most of the songs putter along while framed with the same general production that takes a lot of interesting ideas and makes them sound sterile. The whole album is very stylish, as is to be expected, but also feels incredibly hollow. Even though there are a whole lot of bells and whistles, there just seems to be something missing in the execution itself. There doesn’t seem to be as much heart in Harry's House
as there was in his past releases, almost as if it’s going through the motions of what Styles knows people expect him to make.
One of the biggest contributors to that feeling is that Styles himself doesn’t sound like he wants to be on his own album. Styles rarely lets loose or shows off his vocals at all on Harry's House
. It could be the cool detachment of becoming a rock star, it could be that his vocals are understandably shot after performing non-stop since he was 16, it could be that these songs were made specifically with the idea of being performed at a festival where he would have to maintain vocal health, or it could be a distinctive vocal styling choice. No matter what the reason, it’s boring
. Styles spends the majority of the album singing almost entirely in his head voice. the raw power of his vocals that was heard on songs like “Sign of the Times” or “Falling” are nowhere to be heard except for occasional moments of letting loose in the background of songs, like on the undeniable highlight “Daydreaming”.
Paired alongside the oddly muted lyrics is a lack of big hooks, which was a large part of the appeal of Styles in the first place. Again, with the pushing of pop boundaries that he likes to partake in and his musical maturity, it’s not necessarily surprising that Styles chose to play with song structure, but none of the stylistic choices he engages in make most songs on Harry's House
memorable enough to justify the lack of choruses and the subdued vocal styles. It’s no surprise that the highlights of the album (“As It Was”, “Late Night Talking”, “Daydreaming”) are also the catchiest, as they’re also the songs that seem to have some sort of actual intent and excitement behind their writing.
Along with a lack of truly engaging or interesting production choices, there are just some downright bad ones. Just in case the vocal styling wasn’t already puzzling enough, the suppressed vocal effect that exists on the verses of “Grapejuice” takes what is already the most boring song on the album and basically begs listeners to zone out while it’s playing. There is also a very annoying tendency for songs to have a “quiet” moment that is not at all deserved and, more often than not, disrupts the momentum of the song. The incredibly tepid closer “Love of My Life” goes absolutely nowhere and then suddenly drops away to a single piano line without any sort of emotional pay-off. “Cinema” seems to be building into an explosion of noise, but as soon as the song gets to the moment where said explosion should happen, we instead get another drop out of sound and a cliched guitar line. While this could have been done in a “subvert expectations” kind of way, it instead just takes away all of the momentum in a song that has some of the best production and most potential on the whole album. Only three songs actually broach the 3 minute and 30 second mark and many songs seem to end just as they were getting interesting. “Daylight”, while not a particularly compelling song, is one of the few songs that actually has some sort of musical catharsis with it’s crunching, distorted guitars over the poppy production, making it feel like there is a purpose to its ending, as opposed to just ending because, well, the song is over.
The other aspect that is truly holding back Harry's House
(and, arguably, Harry Styles in general) is some absolutely horrendous lyric-writing. There is something to be said for his lyrical approach, which is more focused on simple vignettes and anecdotes of everyday life, a style does create a sort of emotional mundanity that can be genuinely moving, such as in the acoustic ballad Matilda, easily the best written song on the album. However, lyrics like “You pop when we get intimate
”, “Tracksuit and a ponytail, you hide the body all that yoga gave you
”, and “Cocaine, sideboob
” can take a listener entirely out of a song. The last example comes from “Keep Driving”, a song in the style of a chiller “As It Was”, and also a rare example of a good song almost entirely ruined because of bad lyrics. Styles has never necessarily been known for stellar lyrics, but they were at least fun, creative, or at least serviceable. On Harry's House
, he seems to be trying to write less juvenile lyrics, but they come across as either forced, lazy, or, again and perhaps most worriedly, just simply the best that he can do.
As hinted at, Harry's House
does have some strong highlights. Lead single “As It Was” is the best song Styles has written, a driving pop song with purpose that is somewhat of a misleading single, as no other songs really match its urgency. “Daylight”, “Daydreaming”, and “Satellite” are three songs that actually go somewhere and whose production does lead to sonic and emotional payoffs, even if the actual songwriting might be less than memorable. However, ultimately, Harry's House
doesn’t really go anywhere or do much of anything at all. It breezes by with songs that seemed designed for the festival circuit and that are interesting and experimental enough that they’ll fit with Harry’s aesthetic without being too alienating for radio, almost as if he and his team couldn’t decide which was more important to them, so they went with neither. Ultimately, Harry's House
is festival music that is otherwise best enjoyed as perfectly enjoyable background noise in a coffee shop. What remains to be soon though, is if Harry's House
has any sort of the staying power that Fine Line possessed. While obviously he was a well known artist before, that album is what launched Styles into superstardom. For better or worse, Harry's House
likely does just enough to ensure he stays there.