As I’ve always done with beautiful people, I’ve long only noticed Harry Styles from afar. I never fully allow myself to love things that I feel are too bright and too clean for me, and if One Direction was the pack of popular boys in school, then Harry had prettiest face of them all. He’s the handsome boy you’ve never talked to because you run in different crowds, but who everyone says is very nice, even though he’s never seemed to experience that awkward phase that you thought was a necessary evil, a journey you must undergo to become a better adult. You don’t pine for him; he will always be too far from where you are for you to reach him. You don’t really have anything in common with him, anyway.
With Harry Styles, his debut solo album which came out on May 11, Harry’s trying at something a little earthier, a little more tangible and personal than his work as a member of a ubiquitous pop group. Rolling Stone noted that the album draws heavily from classic rock ‘n’ roll of the mid-1960s and ’70s; from British bands born of American blues, like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals, Jimmy Page, and many more. The risky thing about trying on the elements of a seminal era half a century ago is that all of its idiosyncrasies are so familiar to modern listeners, it’s difficult to find anything enticing and new about them. No matter how well they may be produced or how pristine the recordings, what was once the sound of rebellion has become an institution.
Harry’s vocal performances do glitter with charisma. His voice throughout the album is as precise and attractive as would be expected from someone who’s performed in stadiums for his entire adult life. He pushes his vocals to the dirtier edges of expression, in his screams in “Only Angel,” and shouts and other exclamations in “Kiwi.” I would stand like an ant in an arena crowd just to witness his magnetism; his expansion as a performer since his beginnings in One Direction. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that his solitary voice can fill the room just fine.
But when the music behind the voice on Harry Styles is derived from such a heavily referenced time, I can’t help but take it for granted and look to the words for something meaningful, even equally as iconic as the canon it’s inspired by, something that rings true today the way “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” pierced hearts in 1965. Occasionally, Styles achieves something that feels close. I’m stunned by the clarity of lyrics like, “We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me / Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat” in “Two Ghosts,” a description of people who’ve grown apart that is so specific, it’s universal. “From the Dining Table” is a picture of true loneliness like I haven’t heard from a pop star in a while—the second line of the opening verse is, “Played with myself, where were you?”
Many of Styles’s lyrics are so deftly evocative that they make you dream of how and where he must have conjured them. When I heard “Ever Since New York,” particularly the lyrics, “And I’ve been praying / I never did before / Understand I’m talking to walls,” I liked to imagine Styles writing this image down towards the end of the album’s writing process, after he’d gotten into the groove—or, better yet, that he’d written it a year before they’d even begun recording the album, in a hotel room somewhere, in a little notebook.
The central positioning of the lyrics also exposes their shortcomings, which might not have been as noticeable if they were masked in a 2017 Top 40 dance track. “Carolina,” “Only Angel,” and “Kiwi” find their themes in the clichés of the bad girl who’s innocent on the inside, or the good girl who’s so bad, it’s hard to tell—they’re like Matryoshka dolls. The tradition of employing the rock ‘n’ roll muse, the mysterious, whimsical object of countless historic rock bands’ affections, is carried on unerringly in “Woman.” Some choice lyrics include, “I hope you can see, the shape I’ve been in / While he’s touching your skin / This thing upon me, howls like a beast / You flower, you feast.” The conflict of the narrative is made never so clearly as in the chorus, when Styles simply repeats, over and over, “Woman! Woman!” It’s easy to picture Styles in the studio with the producers, in need of the words for another groovy rock song, going, “Well, what could I sing about that’s the most Rock ‘n’ Roll?” It feels like lazy writing, and a missed opportunity. Imagine how impactful it would’ve been if Styles employed the sound of music that once symbolized revolution to present words that are, in turn, new and revelatory to young listeners today.
Listening to this album has made me think of Harry Styles’s schoolboy persona a bit differently—but not too differently. It’s like looking up to find him right beside you at the bus stop. He’s started to dress a little differently this year—a little shaggier, maybe—and as you observe this, he turns and asks if you know the Beatles. You respond, “Uh, yeah?” He explains that he’s recently gotten really into them. You miraculously get to talking while you wait for the bus, only to find that this beautiful, distant boy from school sometimes says stupid things like, “You’re cool, no one else knows who the Beatles are,” or is awkward and nervous sometimes, like you. You realize he’s been raised by the same media and culture as you, so he’s been deifying a beautiful girl from school the same way you’ve deified him, but none of that lessens his charm. You simply begin to project a more down-to-earth and relatable ideal of a boy onto him, and perhaps he is beginning to form his idea of you in his mind, as well.
It’s interesting, now, to listen to Styles sing words that he himself has written, in comparison to One Direction’s hits concocted by outside experts; to watch the idol prop up his own idols inherited from a long lineage of rock music. It’s especially interesting because, as I sit here dissecting the female ideals and stereotypes portrayed in Styles’s music, I’ve been projecting onto him our cultural ideals of the cute, popular boy in school; the Mick Jagger–inspired, charismatic rocker; the solo sensation recently graduated from boy-band stardom. He’s likely aware of his audience perceiving him thus, and because he’s spent so many of his formative years being an ideal, it could very well be that the way his audience perceives him is, in turn, how he truly perceives himself. Perhaps these projections put upon him have since become an authentic and natural part of him, and all of his words, even the ideals he projects onto others in his songs, are as real to him as his body.
I’m reminded of a lyric from “Ever Since New York:” “You don’t know nothing, just pretend you do / I need something, tell me something new.” You’re sitting on the bus now, still talking with Harry, telling each other things about yourselves, but it’s as if you’re acting out a scene of getting to know each other. And maybe you’re already aware that you’re talking to each others’ projections, yet it feels intimate just the same.
As I write this, I think, If Harry Styles reads this, he’ll probably hate it. But then, I think it’s fine. It’s not really about him, anyway.