Music

Harry Styles Is Shrugging Off Rock Stardom for Something Better

On his new album Harry’s House, the heartthrob stops mining the past and starts building his own place in music history.

Harry Styles performs with a Gibson guitar on the Today Show, looking straight at the camera, wearing swoopy hair and a skintight bodysuit that looks like a very 1970s candy cane
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

He was so much older then, he’s younger than that now: That’s one way of summing up what makes Harry Styles’ new record Harry’s House a welcome advance on his previous two solo albums. Quoting Bob Dylan to do it feels apt because, on 2017’s Harry Styles and 2019’s Fine Line, the former heartthrob from U.K. boy band One Direction seemed overly compelled to pile on reference points, particularly from rock-music history, in order to prove he deserved to be taken seriously. As if seriously were such a great way to take things.

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It’s no wonder Styles felt that compunction, though. Boy-band veterans have long been met with contempt for supposedly being empty products, from rock revanchists and radio programmers alike. And more than almost any erstwhile teen idol, Styles has every qualification to be a rock star for the 21st century. He’s a gifted singer and an even stronger emotional communicator, with an incredible fashion sense, stage charisma to burn, and deep musical taste. He has an instinct for the zeitgeist that’s most apparent in his ongoing visual refusal of gender restrictions—an extension of the “soft” masculinity associated with the boy-band archetype, on his own terms—but doesn’t stop there. After years of serving as tabloid fodder as a teen, Styles also stubbornly sidesteps the reality-show side of pop stardom and cordons off his private life, which enables him to generate that rarest of contemporary cultural energies, actual mystique.

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The solo debut and especially Fine Line were good albums in their own right. Thanks in part to Styles’ work with writer-producers Kid Harpoon (Tom Hull) and Tyler Johnson—still his prime collaborators on Harry’s House—they sounded superb, were expertly structured and performed, and included some terrific songs. But they had a weakness for larded-on grandeur and classic-rock masquerade that Harry’s House finds Styles shrugging off. The 28-year-old singer has said in recent interviews that watching the rise of the much younger Billie Eilish made him aware that for the first time he was no longer in contention to be the bright young thing in pop. A paradoxical effect of this embrace of maturity is that, like Dylan in 1964 (though this is where that parallel ends), Styles seems liberated to be lighter and less sententious. The fact that (the utterly unsententious) “Watermelon Sugar” from the previous album went to No. 1 seems to have reassured him that he doesn’t have to compete with current chart trends either, a reflex vouchsafed by this album’s lead single “As It Was” having become his biggest hit yet. His cultural magnetism creates its own orbit.

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On Harry’s House, Styles is making looser, often funkier music that’s a more original mashup of styles. And in this mode, ironically enough, his personal songwriting voice comes through much more clearly than when he was trying to reproduce blurry scans of templates from 1970s singer-songwriters like Elton John, Joni Mitchell, or his friend and idol Stevie Nicks. These songs find their own routes to feeling instead of retracing inherited maps. Often those routes might be messy and half-incoherent, but they seem the more human for it. I can’t parse exactly what’s going on in the narrative of “Little Freak,” for instance, where Styles starts off calling someone a “jezebel,” later declines to apologize for spilling a beer on the person’s friend at Halloween (maybe?), and then owns up that these acts of disrespect really came at his own expense. But I bet there are listeners out there identifying.

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My favorite examples come in the record’s second half, such as in the free-associated images of “Keep Driving,” including passages like “Wine glass/ Puff pass/ Tea with cyborgs/ Riot America/ Science and edibles/ Life hacks going viral in the bathroom …” These snatches of memory keep bubbling over burbling synthesizers, assembling a kind of collage of lost moments that the protagonist is hoping but unsure may add up to a mutual intimacy. It’s one of the many songs here that seem to be about the insecure moorings of a long-distance relationship. The next track, “Satellite,” also measures the tensile strength of the threads binding star-crossed but globally separated lovers, at first with a steady dance-rock pulse. Then, in the final minute, the satellite’s path seems to get more tangled, and the music becomes overwhelmed by a twister of noise that dismantles its sweet optimism.

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In that context, the acoustic ballad that follows, “Boyfriends,” isn’t necessarily just the sensitive-feminist denunciation of guys mistreating their romantic partners that it seems—though it’s a fine on that level, too, with that ultimate sensitive dude Ben Harper on guitar—but a potential self-excoriation too. And the swoony closing song, “Love of My Life,” for all its romantic verses about getaways in hotels “using someone else’s name,” likewise undermines its gushy sentiments by admitting, “I don’t know you half as well as all my friends/ I won’t pretend that I’ve been doing everything I can/ To get to know your creases and your ends.” Which leads a listener to wonder about the sincerity of the titular declaration, or maybe the hollowness of the protagonist’s life.

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But Harry’s House is hardly all angst. It starts with “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” a Prince-ly workout with goofy food-sex metaphors (“I could fry an egg on you”), funk horns, interjections of scat singing (“scuba duba dubub boo”), and skewed background vocals that recall the offbeat harmonizing of indie band Dirty Projectors. (Remember “Stillness is the Move”? Does Styles?) The next couple of tracks don’t convince me, until we reach the eighties-reboot assuredness of “As It Was.” But the neo-soul of “Daylight” insinuates itself into my brainstem with tinctures of Frank Ocean or Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes, who appears on another track here) as well as a little bit of a country-folk nod in its “if I was a bluebird” imagery.

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“Cinema” does throw a few scraps to the gossip hounds who’ll be watching out for signs of Styles’ maybe-on, maybe-off reported romance with actor-filmmaker Olivia Wilde. But mostly it’s a lusty low-information jam that floats on clouds of libido with the ease of vintage Maxwell. Likewise, “Daydreaming” may ride almost entirely on its sample from the Brothers Johnson’s 1978 disco classic “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now”—one of the most-sampled tracks in early hip-hop history but not usually this sample—but it’s a ride one doesn’t want to get off.

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And there’s a touching centerpiece in the guitar-piano meditation “Matilda.” It departs from the romantic themes to provide distant, gentle counsel (“it’s none of my business, but it’s just been on my mind”) to a friend who needs to detach herself from a hostile family life: “You can start a family who will always show you love,” Styles sings. “You don’t have to be sorry for doing it on your own.” Though admittedly it verges on the mawkish, one factor that keeps it from getting there is that the specific threat at home goes unspoken. It’s likely one that Styles’ many LGBTQ+ fans will be able to picture all too easily.

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Given Styles’ Joni fandom, the album title often has been taken as a tribute to the song “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” from Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. But in a couple of interviews now, he’s clarified that it’s actually a reference to the 1973 album Hosono House by Japanese folk-psych and “city pop” pioneer Haruomi Hosono, of the groups Yellow Magic Orchestra and Happy End. That record was an early example of a bedroom project, and Styles was anticipating that during the pandemic he might have to pursue a similarly homespun album. I’m thankful he didn’t, although some of the album’s intimate atmosphere does result from the studio personnel being largely pared down to the lockdown bubble of Styles, Hull, and Johnson. Gradually, though, he’s said, the title came to represent that the songs reflected a kind of domestic day in the emotional life of Styles, during a period when he was rooted for months alternately in London or Los Angeles, not globetrotting, for the first time since his mid-teens. And while the songs are not explicit about it, they do convey a sense of place, unlike the kind of stage-set facades one imagined him posing in front of on the earlier albums.

I still wouldn’t call Harry’s House a great album. It’s abundantly enjoyable. His magpie stylings are now filched from a more rounded range of influences. But I can’t yet imagine hearing another artist and saying, “That’s a total Harry Styles ripoff.” Though the songs are becoming richer, I doubt I’ll return to them a decade-plus hence, except as a fondly remembered transition. But Harry’s House provides him with much more sustainable material for whatever he’s building next.

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