Wrong Direction

Harry Styles once teased a homoerotic pop future. So why does his debut album sound like hetero classic rock?

Harry Styles
Harry Styles plays an intimate show at The Garage in Highbury on Saturday in London.

Sofi Adams/Getty Images

Dearest Harry,

My pop-critic friends and I have had a collective crush on you and your One Direction buddies for a few years now. We envied your swoopy hair, sure, but more we liked the way that a Simon Cowell–fabricated band of talent-show kids managed to take exuberant ownership of their own group identity, with your Beatlesque banter and a casually homoerotic camaraderie that launched a million slash-fic fantasies.

As you grew older, your albums flattered our own geekery by becoming collages of classic-rock references—while still sounding like contemporary radio hits, homing in unapologetically on the pleasure centers of your main, teen-girl fan base. You were both populist and classicist, the ultimate inclusive pop idols. It would have been hard to love you more if you’d been sending us pink teddy bears in the mail.

But with your first solo album—titled just plain Harry Styles, as if you were pulling off a mask and revealing the “real” you—would it be out of line to tell you that you’re playing too easy to get?

Don’t get me wrong, the record does verify that you’re a talented songwriter—at least together with the very capable band you and producer Jeff Bhasker assembled and jetted out to Jamaica for an extended creative sleepover. In no-doubt-deliberate contrast to how overstuffed One Direction albums could get, this one is a neat, classic-vinyl–sized 10 songs. It’s just vulnerable enough, just assertive enough, just enough-enough of whatever one could reasonably ask of a Harry Styles solo album without dispelling the coy mystique that’s always been part of your particular aura.

Many teen-pop band members’ first albums sound like instant epitaphs for a career that’s not going to happen. (I liked your ex-bandmate Zayn’s album a fair bit, but it didn’t make me hungry for another.) Yours is a convincing re-introduction of a star who seems sure to stick around.

It’s not much more than that, though.

For one thing, the game of spot-the-reference has expanded to the point where it’s hard to crane one’s neck around it to get a view of the songs themselves. Your critic fans can’t help becoming completely distracted by the Badfinger “Baby Blue” riff that dominates “Ever Since New York” (did it get stuck in your head from the Breaking Bad finale?) and the “Stuck in the Middle With You” rhythm guitar on “Carolina” (whose better qualities are more of a cop from Beck’s “New Pollution”), and generally the fashionable 1970s singer-songwriter Elton John/Harry Nilsson/Laurel Canyon permutations that are all over this thing.*

Your advance single “Sign of the Times” has been read as a double-headed Prince and David Bowie homage, which would be pandering even if it were true. But give or take a few trace elements of “Space Oddity,” it’s more of a tribute to Pink Floyd and Coldplay by way of Fun and Foster the People, a twice-removed copy of someone else’s idea of a grand statement. Sure, it was bold of you to put out a five-and-a-half-minute first single, but I want to hit the fast-forward button by about 3:25 because the verse, chorus, and bridge all carry on the same relentless march pattern, only to varying degrees of embiggening.

Still, it’s all super-melodic and super-listenable, and the surprising versatility of your voice carries us through—up until the middle, where the fake-out mellow intro on “Only Angel” switches suddenly (at least you didn’t use a record-scratch effect) into a raunchy guitar choogle, complete with “woo-hoo!” backing vocals, announcing the Rolling Stones–cover-band section of the proceedings. I get that we’re supposed to be into the Glimmer Twins–esque narrative of your pairing with your new discovery, pizza-boy–turned–guitarist-and-drummer Mitch Rowland—whatever other relationships the album’s about, that’s the real central romance here; it’s the new Larry Stylinson.

Sure, cool, but when you copped some shine from Mick and Keef, did you have to drag the Stones’ scraggly trail of misogyny in along with it? “Only Angel” is directed at a stereotypical lust object lacking in distinguishing traits. A couple of tracks later, over a “Bennie and the Jets” piano riff and a vocal sample distorted into a duck call, you jealously shout the title “Woman” mushmouthedly for no clear reason for about four minutes that feel like 40. Among the uptempo tracks, only the “Billie Jean”–ish drama in “Kiwi,” a little battle-of-the-sexes/fame-monster playlet, skirts any genuine eroticism, though “hard candy dripping on me till my feet are wet” lays it on rather thick. Was it all the same-sex–love gossip swirling around One D. that made you so desperate to prove your hetero bona fides here?

Too bad, because the sexiest moment on Harry Styles is definitely the allusion to self-pleasuring at the top of the closing and (to my ears) best track, “From the Dining Table,” which makes you sound much more at ease with your body, and your desires, than all the big-bad-wolf leering in the world. That stuff just seems like a betrayal of the young women whose admiration makes your career possible, the ones whose intelligence you so fetchingly defended in your Rolling Stone interview last month: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music,” you asked, “have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? … How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future.” Why does this album seem more aimed at that 30-year-old hipster guy, then?

The best character sketch here, in fact, is in “Carolina,” the one that’s supposedly about a fan: Despite the derivative music and kinda-dumb chorus, there’s plenty of vivid detail in the verses. I’d listen to a whole album of songs about your fans, one subject you’ve at least gotten to know well in your short, unusual life. (I know you tried to avoid it, but all the hotel rooms and hallways that show up on this record hint at the numbing touring that’s dominated your existence.)

I’d also be up for hearing you sing directly about music instead of just winking with all the borrowed licks. I have a theory that you’re doing that here on the country-rock ballad “Two Ghosts,” the one everyone thinks is about Taylor Swift—I think it’s actually about the strange time-travel effect of you listening to Taylor Swift’s songs about you, or more precisely Ryan Adams’ covers of Taylor Swift’s songs about you, because his acoustic guitar version of 1989 is exactly the style of this song. It’s a poignant image of displacement and memory, of the ghosts that always live in our music machines.

In any case, I’m mostly curious how this album will register with your real, non–pop-critic fans over time. It being old-fashioned doesn’t necessarily make it irrelevant to them. Plenty of kids’ tastes these days, like yours, are influenced by their parents’ record collections, which lead to classic-rock playlists on streaming services, which lead to discoveries of further-out sounds. But I think that, like me, they can probably tell you got wrapped up in proving that you had what it took to go through the venerable old motions of rock stardom.

Mission accomplished, but now it’s time to find a voice that speaks a little more boldly to the current century. Your critic fans, at least, would really hate to have to take your picture down from inside our locker doors.

P.S. The hair is still really good.

*Correction, May 17, 2017: This article originally misidentified the title of the song “Stuck in the Middle With You” as “Stuck in the Middle of You.” (Return.)