Columbia Records, 2017.
My name is Steve Lindsley, and I’m listening to the new Harry Styles album.
I appreciate you not judging. But I wouldn’t fault you if you did. I sure didn’t see it coming. But there I was, watching SNL one night, somehow managing to stay up late enough for the first musical act (being a preacher I’m usually long asleep by then). And there he was, the One Direction heartthrob, standing at the mic looking all forlorn and contemplative over the lulling piano progression of “Sign Of The Times.” As the song unfolded, I confess I wasn’t totally thrilled with what I heard – plodding in some places, repetitive. But one thing was for certain: This guy was looking to leave his boy band days behind, and he actually might have the chops to pull it off.
Later when I checked out the full album, I realized what my musical collaborator and Montreat Youth Conference co-music leader concluded in a recent Facebook post: If you listened to the Harry Styles album not knowing who it was, you’d probably think, “This is good. I wonder who this is.”
It’s true, it is good. It won’t sweep the Grammys. But it’s good.
Styles seems to feel right at home vocally on the album – none of the full-on, in-your-face, over-autotuned 1D stuff. No, here we find a more evocative and expressive Harry, deftly matching his voice with whatever the song requires – wistful on “Meet Me in the Hallway,” soulful on the rocking “Kiwi,” reflective on “From the Dining Table.” It’s the kind of versatility one does not expect from someone who rose to fame in the processed pop world. But now, freed from those constraints, Styles is able to let his true musicianship shine.
Musically, the album effectively traverses a number of influences in the ‘70s soft rock genre. One hears hints of Beck, The Allman Brothers, Elton John, Ryan Adams and David Bowie. Studio guitarist Mitch Rowland, plucked from his job at a pizza shop, serves as both studio guitarist and co-songwriter, and the vibe between him and the headliner is palpable. Versatile producer Jeff Bhasker does a great job of song construction and intuitively knowing that special ingredient to throw in, whether it’s a Blackbird-esque guitar riff on “Sweet Creature” or looped oh yeahs on “Carolina.”
If the album has any weakness, it would be lyrical. While containing a few crafty illustrations and creative word play here and there, by and large the lyrics fall flat, remaining safely on the surface instead of digging deep. Allusions to previous relationships are sometimes a little clumsy, lacking Taylor Swift’s cleverness. There’s room to grow, though – and Styles does show promise. “Two Ghosts,” the strongest track in this reviewer’s humble opinion, delves into the nuances of a relationship stuck in a holding pattern:
We’re not who we used to be
We’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me
Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.
It is rare, exceedingly rare, that a boy band alum can further his career once they leave the arena concerts and screaming fans behind. In fact, it could legitimately be argued that only one has accomplished this feat, and word is he can’t stop the feeling. Harry Styles has assembled an impressive 10-song debut album with staying power, demonstrating that he has the stuff to successfully turn the corner and stick around for a while. This could be fun to watch and listen to.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or blogging, or running, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.