Harry Styles Loses Direction

Boy band refugee Harry Styles is on his own in a promising debut album, trying to rebrand himself as a serious artist

Harry Styles performs on NBC's 'Today' show at Rockefeller Plaza, May 9, 2017, in New York.
Charles Sykes/AP

Harry Styles never wanted to be a member of a boy band. At the age of 16, with too much hair and too many pimples, he went by himself to audition for “The X Factor” (U.K.). The judges decided he wasn’t good enough as a soloist, and instead grouped him with four other teenagers. One Direction was born, and Styles spent the rest of his teens on an endless world tour, taking selfies with Directioners.

After the painful departure of Zayn Malik and rumors of a falling out (as well as a passionate romance) between Styles and Louis Tomlinson, the band members announced in 2015 that they were taking a break, with each of them concentrating on his own career.

Now Styles is facing a pivotal moment, one that every boy band refugee must face. He has to decide whether he’s a Justin or a JC, a George or an Andrew, a Robbie or a Gary. Will he rise above the screaming fans, or will he beg his friends for a comeback?

In order to rebrand himself as a “serious and legitimate” artist, Styles decided to immerse himself in references to “serious and legitimate” artists. To truly understand what the British talent is trying to say, you’ll need to search through endless familiar sounds borrowed from every successful musician in the past century: David Bowie, Beck, The Beatles, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys. Three songs in, and Styles’ debut album becomes a really fun game of “name that tune.”

The lead single, “Sign of the Times,” is everything Styles so desperately wants to become: dramatic, mature, larger than life. As you get carried away by the effective orchestra and the over-the-top vocals, it’s almost unbelievable to think it’s a Harry Styles song.

He wanted so badly to detach himself from his past that he buried all evidence of his young age and of the year in which the album was recorded. Most of the songs could just as well have been heard on the radio in the four previous decades. “Carolina,” which echoes Beck, Sheryl Crow and “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, is naturally a perfect road trip tune; Lady Gaga’s “You and I” is hidden under “Two Ghosts.” For conspiracy lovers, the first few seconds will also recall Ivri Lider’s “Yoter Tov Klum” (Better Nothing Than Almost), whereas the Mick Jagger-like “Only Angel” sends crazed fans to guess about whom it was written.

The length of the album – only 40 minutes – doesn’t leave much room for fillers, or for guests. Styles finally has the spotlight all to himself, so there’s no reason for him to share it. It seems as though years of being in a boy band have left their mark, as the list of writers and producers of the album doesn’t include even a single woman.

If you squint and ignore a stolen riff here and there, Styles turns out to be an interesting and charismatic musician with a promising debut album. Now all he needs to do is remind himself that he’s all of 23 years old, a great age for discovering who you really are.

“Harry Styles,” Columbia Records