)That sex and that sadness are most richly synthesized on the album’s last track, “From the Dining Table.” The song opens with a simple acoustic guitar and Styles gently singing “Played with myself / Where were you / Got drunk by noon / Never felt less cool.” (Those may not be the lyrics—my handwriting had really started to break down by this point.) Here’s sad, drunk, masturbating Harry Styles, a jilted lover singing in vaguely Sufjan Stevens-ish tones, later hoping, “Maybe one day you’ll call me / And tell me you’re sorry too.” He’s tried to move on— “Woke up to girl who looked just like you / I almost spoke your name”—but can’t.
It all feels recalled from a somewhat safe remove, a looking back on tumultuousness, reading the old diary and remembering a messy, but beautiful, time. On songs like the Beck-meets-“Stuck in the Middle with You” barnstormer “Carolina,” and the big-guitar Viper Room thrasher “Kiwi,” Styles sings about how “She feels so good” and evokes “Hard candy dripping on me till my feet are wet.” One could see this as yet another example of that old post-boy band classic, the public announcement that a previously chaste-seeming, non-threatening boy is now a fully actualized sexual being.
We’ve heard it many times before, including from Zayn Malik and Niall Horan.
—as a put-on, as Harry Styles trying on some vintage clothes and strutting around in them, rather than really while a good and satisfying and occasionally affecting listen, has a sheen of youthful inauthenticity to it, a tinny hum of shallowness cutting through even the album’s grander moments.
By now I’m going to assume we’ve all heard the album’s first single, the Bowie/Oasis homage “Sign of the Times,” on which Styles shows off his new soaring rock vocals. It’s a curious choice for a first single, a nearly six-minute epic with lyrics like, “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky,” that is supposedly about a dead friend.
sweeps you up in its sense of knowing, of wisdom, of age.
Its mix of space rock and Fleetwood Mac and Sunset Strip scuzz and Brit-pop nostalgia telegraphs a depth, a considered weight. But then you remember that, wait a second, Harry Styles is only 23.I know that’s not the intention, that these are firmly adult emotions that Styles is trying to wrestle with. Jeff Bhasker, along with Alex Salibian, Tyler Johnson, and Kid Harpoon—have assembled such a wide array of throwback music references, from 20, 30, 40 years ago, gives the album an air of precociousness that only highlights the youth of its front man.And of course I’m approaching these songs with the condescension afforded to me by my relative decrepitude. Granted, a precocious kid who wants to sound like Stevie and Elton and Syd and Lindsey and Liam and Noel and all the rest is a precocious kid with good taste, a precocious kid I wanna know.The album—which even features a slow jam called simply “Woman,” thudding with notes of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” and Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore”—is very much concerned with one woman or various women whom Styles has loved in some capacity.At the top of my scrawl of notes, I wrote in big letters: “Romance,” “Lost love,” and “Sex.” They are easily the three defining themes of (And, perhaps, of Harry Styles.)It’s quite-on-the-nose in “Woman,” which finds Harry playing the jealous lover.Listening to the album at the Sony Music offices in New York, in a small room fittingly decorated with a rock-‘n’-roll-red carpet and a deep-crimson wall, I found myself wanting to know who, exactly, broke Harry’s heart.