harry-styles
Harry Styles performs "Sign of the Times" on Saturday Night Live in New York City, April 15, 2017 NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Harry Styles' Solo Album Is an Unexpected Tour of Rock History

May 11, 2017

It was always easy to dismiss One Direction. Formed on reality TV and cannily styled to appeal to young listeners, it had all the markings of a manufactured boy band. But by its fifth and most recent album, One Direction had become a stealth classic-rock delivery service, repackaging crunchy guitar riffs and soaring arena-ready choruses that went down easy with kids and reminded parents of their youth. In 2015, Zayn Malik left the band to top charts with sulky alt-R&B songs like "Pillowtalk," a No. 1 hit last year. Now Harry Styles, the band's de facto front man, is next to make a bid for solo stardom.

On Styles' self-titled debut album, out May 12, he eschews slick production and sharp hooks. But he still synthesizes influences from the last half-century of rock, so much so that you can practically travel through history on the back of his references. The anxious opener "Meet Me in the Hallway" has a riff straight out of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," while the operatic lead single "Sign of the Times" channels David Bowie. "Kiwi" is straight-up grunge, full of rage, and "Two Ghosts" sounds like late-'90s adult-contemporary radio, in the best way. Working with veteran producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Mark Ronson), Styles has crafted a grownup rock sound that doesn't pander.

Styles' lyrics can be opaque, which makes the confessional final track, "From the Dining Table," all the more important. It's a vulnerable ode to the lonely hotel room, the curse of the famous. The song not only proves Styles' talent as a storyteller but also shows that he may potentially be as good at looking inward as at looking backward in time.

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