Not too long ago, it would have been deemed downright blasphemous, or at least quite uncool, to declare a former boy-band heartthrob and third-place finalist from a Simon Cowell TV talent show, best known for having fantastic hair and dating Taylor Swift for two months, the grand savior of rock ’n’ roll. But incredibly, here we have Harry Styles, swooping in like the winged rock god from his gravity- and expectations-defying “Sign of the Times” music video, to save us all from the Chainsmokers with his self-titled solo debut: a heroically ambitious, actually guitar-oriented rock album in the year 2017. It’s an encouraging sign of the times, indeed.
Perhaps we all should have seen this transformation coming. Styles’s laddish charisma, apparent role as the token “bad boy” of 1D, and, yes, probably his hair had fans and bloggers likening him to a young, pouty Mick Jagger even when his Cowell-assembled boy band, One Direction, was teeny-bopping through “Summer of ’69” on The X Factor U.K. back in 2010. And last month, when Styles dropped his glittery bomb of a statement-making, six-minute, space-rock single, “Sign of the Times,” which in fact sounded like it could have been released in the summer of ’69, The Guardian went so far as to claim that the now 23-year-old might be “the new David Bowie.”
Such comparisons are overreaching, of course — not to mention premature. And with a Sticky-Fingered, Stardust-sprinkled album that evokes not only the Glimmer Twins and Ziggy but any number of classic ’60s/’70s influences — from Elton John (“Sign of the Times,” the “la-la”-laden soft-rock slow jam “Woman”) to The White Album (“Sweet Creature”) to junkshop glam (the trashy, platform-heel-stomping, delightfully attitudinal “Kiwi”) to Stealers Wheel (the pleasantly shuffling folk-funk groove of “Carolina”) to at least a couple Burrito Brothers — it’s too soon to tell if Styles has substance and is a “serious singer-songwriter,” or if he’s just some Laurel Canyon-fetishizing hipster with an impeccably curated vinyl collection and an A-list entourage doing most of his album’s heavy lifting. (Among Harry Styles’s many collaborators: Jeff Bhasker, who co-penned fun.’s smash hit “We Are Young” and worked on Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special; British indie folkster Kid Harpoon, who’s written/produced for Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Jessie Ware, and HAIM; and Cam producer Tyler Johnson.) Suffice to say, Styles wears his old-school influences on the sleeve of his hot pink suit.
Styles’s true musical direction, no pun intended, will likely become clearer when he tackles the recording of his inevitable “difficult sophomore album” down the (Yellow Brick) road. But he makes it all sound so damn easy-breezy here. So while on the album’s whiskey-sodden, surprisingly Elliott Smith-esque acoustic outro, “From the Dining Table,” he may ironically sing in his Rod the Mod rasp, “I’ve never felt less cool,” for now it is not overreaching to say that Harry Styles is one of the best, coolest albums of the year so far — and that this guy is a total rock star.