Harry Styles, Our Most Likable Pop Star, Keeps Evolving on ‘Harry’s House’

·5 min read
Anthony Pham via Getty
Anthony Pham via Getty

As a celebrity, Harry Styles has a clearly defined and universally recognizable identity. Six years ago, the former One Direction member made the fraught transition from skinny jeans-clad boybander to grown-up solo star with astonishing success. He has co-chaired a Met Gala, hosted Saturday Night Live, graced the covers of Rolling Stone and Vogue, and headlined Coachella. His sartorial propensity for sheer blouses, floral Gucci suits, and the occasional dress at once tantalizes fans and angers right-wing political pundits.

Styles is the unofficial Nice Guy of the music industry, touting polite British manners and songs with titles like “Treat People with Kindness.” Skeptics might suggest his sweetheart persona is inauthentic, boring, even suspicious. But all accounts from fans and fellow stars alike confirm that he really is that nice—the kind of guy who will watch a stranger’s dog while they pick up takeout from a restaurant. An ultra-famous, ultra-likable crusader against toxic masculinity—with perfectly tousled hair and a dimpled smile to boot—Styles is the kind of celebrity that even your out-of-touch aunt likes.

And yet, his identity as an artist is far more difficult to work out. With Styles’ first two albums—his eponymous debut in 2017 and Fine Line in 2019—it often felt like he was trying on different sounds the way one tries on jackets. But now, with the release of his third album, Harry’s House, on Friday, Styles finally seems eager to establish who he is as a musician. In interviews leading up to the release, the 28-year-old hyped up Harry’s House as the album that feels the most like him. If that’s true, then we are pleased to report that Harry Styles, the musician, is just as refreshing and palatable as Harry Styles, the celebrity. Like strawberries on a summer evening, if you will.

Harry’s House sounds markedly different from Styles’ previous works, trading pop-rock for head-bobbing ’70s-style funk and airy synth riffs. When the album’s lead single, “As It Was,” dropped in April, it drew comparisons to A-Ha’s ’80s pop hit “Take On Me.” There’s plenty more of that, too, along with currents of classical jazz. It all comes together cohesively to form the kind of easy-listening album that one might bump as the soundtrack to an outdoor summer party, as well-suited for dancing as it is for sipping wine and chatting on someone’s rooftop.

Styles co-wrote the album with frequent collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson. The lyrics are a millennial-aesthetic Mad Libs, sweet and melancholy, with references to horoscopes, green tea, and buying flowers for lovers. One song, “Keep Driving,” is basically just a list of things a now-30-year-old might have reblogged photos of on Tumblr in 2014. “Black and white film camera / Yellow sunglasses / Ashtray,” he sings. Later: “Cocaine / Side boob / Choke her with a sea view.”

“Daylight,” the fifth track on Harry’s House, is a catchy, rollicking standout about an unrequited crush. “If I was a bluebird / I would fly to you,” Styles sings. “You’d be the spoon / Dip you in honey so I could be sticking to you.” Fans will surely obsess over “Little Freak,” for no reason other than the sheer delight of hearing the British heartthrob repeatedly coo, “Little freak, you jezebel.” Then there’s “Matilda,” the song that most closely harkens back to Styles’ boyband roots, which manages to be tearjerker despite its total basicness. Listening to it, you can easily picture a sea of phone flashlights filling an arena, undulating along to the plucky acoustic guitar melody.

Harry Styles’ Most Adored Cover Songs, From Lizzo to Fleetwood Mac

The main critique of Styles’ first two albums was that his songs sometimes veered into the overly derivative. Each one’s influences were so obviously traceable that they seemed to merely reflect whatever Styles was listening to at that moment, rather than his own perspective as a musician.

Back in 2017, his first single from Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times,” came as something of a shock to those who were expecting the radio-friendly pop of his One Direction days. Clocking in at nearly six minutes long, the glam rock-inflected piano ballad proved to be a strong indicator of what was to come on his debut album. On Harry Styles, he seemed to have recently taken a Classic Rock 101 course, sonically referencing The Rolling Stones, Elton John, the Beatles, and his perennial favorites, Fleetwood Mac. Fine Line, meanwhile, was all Laurel Canyon during the 1970s; think Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.

Going into Harry’s House, Styles appeared conscious of the critique that his music has occasionally suffered from being too referential. In an interview with Howard Stern on Wednesday, he explained that in making the new album, he made a conscious effort to stop listening to other music.

<div class="inline-image__credit"> Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty </div>
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

“I was really interested in what I would make if I didn’t use any kind of direct sonic references, if I wasn’t going, ‘I love the sound of that synth and I love this drum sound and I love this thing, let’s put them together,’” he told Stern. “I wanted to feel like if I sit in a room and I try and imagine what I want a song to sound like, what does it end up sounding like? If I don’t have, you know, Fleetwood Mac playing over here and I don’t have Joni Mitchell playing over here.”

Based on “As It Was” alone, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that there are no direct sonic references on Harry’s House, whether intentional or not. And maybe with its sparkly, cocaine-laced funk, so different from anything he’s given us in the past, this album is just Styles trying on a new sound once again. This time, however, he’s found one that really works for him, and one that he would do well to continue to explore. Harry’s House is Styles’ best album yet, and proof of his enduring relevance not just as a celebrity, but as an artist.

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