“It’s surprisingly good” is probably a line you’ve heard people toss around when talking about Harry Styles’s self-titled debut. Having already earned his star status as part of the biggest boy band in recent memory, it would have been difficult for fans (and even non-fans) to separate Styles from the bubblegum pop that made him a household name.
Yet from the day “Sign of the Times” was released, he let the world know that in his first solo venture, things were going to sound different but still sound like a hit. Armed with soft rock ballads, new wave-inspired tracks, and nods to his musical influences, the young singer wastes no time introducing himself as an aspiring rock star.
Because the rock star dream is such a tall order, Styles had to drastically modify the pop sound he kept for years to make his album sound as grand and authentic to the rock genre as possible. This involved letting go of the catchy hooks ever so present in his songs with One Direction. Instead of catching your ear with a riff that shows up every few stanzas, he opts for gut-punching guitar chords and mellow piano intros to grab the listener from the start and entice them to stay.
The less-than-subtle musical allusions to legends like The Beatles and Prince could have easily come off as a cliche–the most glaring one being the naming of his lead single after the latter’s 1987 record “Sign O’ The Times”–but Styles’s sheer vocal prowess manages to veer him away from that risk. Nowhere in the album does he sound like an amateur vocalist, whether it’s belting out a soft rock ballad like “Sign of the Times” or channeling the inner crooner in him in “Sweet Creature.”
His gutsy ambition is capped by the newfound candidness of his lyrical themes. Styles neither sugarcoats the struggle with heartbreak in “From the Dining Table” with a line like “Fell back to sleep, got drunk by noon / I’ve never felt less cool” nor does he fail to raise some eyebrows when he sings “I think she said ‘I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business’” in “Kiwi.”
Harry Styles has a sound that could have it mistakenly placed in the archives of classic British rock, and it might just be why it’s so exciting to listen to. You can blame it on nostalgia for the classic rock sound or fatigue from the presence of redundant pop songs on the radio, but the former boy band member’s turn from teen swooner to aspiring rock star is a rebrand that wins him new, unexpecting fans.