How would you explain Harry Styles to an alien?
I think about this sometimes, which is something I should probably keep to myself, but here we are. I don’t know why it has to be an alien rather than, say, somebody’s grandma who’s not acquainted with Mr. Styles, but in my mind’s eye it’s an alien, so we’re going with that.
I’d start with the basics: pop singer. British. Handsome–very handsome. Used to be in a famous boy band. Stylish, and especially fond of bright colors and wide-legged pants. Aliens probably don’t know Gucci, so mentioning that is out, but I think I could paint a clear enough picture. (I don’t know why my extraterrestrial friends know “boy band” but not Gucci, but try not to get too bogged down in the details here.) Big Stevie Nicks fan. Writes a lot of songs about fruit. A lot of people are pretty wild about him and his songs.
If I were really trying to explain what all the fuss—two platinum albums and the new release Harry’s House, the fastest-selling album of this year so far—is about, I’d offer these two qualities: First, Styles creates exceptional sounds, from the way he makes the word “high” (as in “watermelon sugar high”) sound like it contains an ethereal exhale in the middle, to the way the lyrics to Harry’s House opener “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” cascade from his mouth in bright, airy harmonies. This is a man whose pronunciation of “Tuesday” has merited its own Twitter account, and rightfully so.
Second, Styles is one of our world’s foremost experts in how to create a spectacle out of his own brand of hyper-empathetic charisma. There are the clothes, the hair flips, the Shania Twain guest appearances. The way he won’t miss an opportunity to tell boyfriends everywhere to kindly eff off. A Styles concert is a two-hour opportunity to hear some excellent music and watch someone gifted with an absurd amount of charm pay so much attention to you—you!—and seem to understand you so perfectly that you can’t help but believe that some of the charm must have rubbed off.
Harry’s House is at its best when it traffics in the first of those superpowers. It is an excellent-sounding album. “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” with its bursts of trumpet exploding from a slinky ’80s bass line, and the groovy “Late Night Talking” are highlights. For all of its notable lyrics—hash browns, side boob, we didn’t start the fire!—“Keep Driving” sounds at first like a short, sweet song until you realize that it packs a hook that sinks its talons in and doesn’t let go. Styles has worked with a consistent group of collaborators, including Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, for all three of his solo albums, and it’s clear that this is a well-oiled machine from how deftly they apply soft layers of low harmonies (“Matilda”) and small vocal accents (the echoes across “Cinema”). “Little Freak,” one of the more finespun tracks on the album, has at least a half dozen unexpected tricks up its sleeve, offering a new lyrical detail, rich harmony, or clever accent every few bars of looping fingerpicked guitar.
In the run-up to the release of Harry’s House, my biggest question was whether the album would clarify what, exactly, makes a Harry Styles song a Harry Styles song. For all of his personality, Styles can be hard to pin down. In interviews, he’s often referenced how “navel-gazing” it is to make an album, and perhaps as a result tends to offer mostly vague descriptions of what he’s trying to communicate through his art. Styles’s major interview this album cycle was a cover story for Better Homes & Gardens, which seemed designed to be just cheeky enough to render its contents secondary and allow Styles to simply offer that he’d been reflecting on the “internal” feeling of being at home when writing the album. That’s a nice sentiment for a pop star who left home as a teenager and didn’t get a real chance to go back until a global pandemic struck suddenly, but also a little bit like something you could find on a throw pillow next to a “Live, Laugh, Love” poster. Musically, Styles is such a student of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s artists he adores that it can be hard to tell which parts of his songs are really coming from him and which are coming from Fleetwood Mac or Wings-era Paul McCartney, as filtered through Styles.
To his credit, Harry’s House seems the most purely Styles of any of his albums. It wears its ’80s grooves on its sleeve and borrows from A-ha (“As It Was”) and the Brothers Johnson (“Daydreaming” samples 1978’s “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now”), but those nods are intentional and, overall, there are few moments that feel overly indebted to Styles’s heroes of the past. This was clearly something he was concerned with when writing the record, telling Better Homes & Gardens that he tried to cleanse himself of his usual sonic references by listening only to classical music in the runup to his studio sessions so that he could enter them with “a blank canvas.” Mission accomplished, I’d say. These are Harry Styles songs as I’ve come to understand them: gleaming, propulsive, packed with rich sonic layers.
Here’s the “but”: While Harry’s House is largely excellent for how it sounds, I’m not sure it’s as successful at centering Harry’s other superpower for creating a spectacle, at least on the recorded version of the album. For now, at least, Fine Line remains the superior Styles album for this reason. I agree with my colleague Rob Harvilla who, in his review, said he wishes Styles had “taken the prerogative to have a little more fun.” I think this will happen when Styles tours Harry’s House—I can already see him whipping the cord to his microphone back and forth behind him while he struts down a catwalk during “Late Night Talking.” I can hear how live background vocalists and horns would turn the yacht-rock “bah-yahs” of “Daydreaming” from slightly schmaltzy to pure musical serotonin.
My favorite songs on Harry’s House (the exuberance of “Sushi,” the lyrical ridiculousness of “Keep Driving”) are the ones where it seems like he’s having the most fun, but elsewhere it can feel like he was afraid to truly let loose. My Every Single Album cohost Nathan Hubbard points out that he tends to favor the verses over the choruses on these songs, and some songs, like “Grapejuice,” feel like they build through the verses and then fall flat on the choruses.
Perhaps there’s some anxiety over maintaining the credit that Styles has received as a “serious musician” given how thoughtfully he went about earning it after his One Direction days (even though Styles himself has been one of the best at articulating why the assumption that boy band music is less deserving is flawed). His first solo single, “Sign of the Times,” was an epic ballad about the end of the world announced on the anniversary of the Prince album. He’s cowritten all of his songs. He has active friendships with Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell (the latter of whom, fans theorize, he’s worked on songs with). That’s pretty legit, as singer-songwriter bona fides go.
At times, Harry’s House seems caught between taking full advantage of his pop star prowess and trying to do some Mitchell-style storytelling. Harry’s House has fascinating lyrics and some moments of genuine introspection, like in the bridge of “As It Was,” as anxious as it is bright, or the vignettes of “Little Freak.” But even as the story in that song is captivating in moments—how did he spill the beer?!—Styles is sure to remind listeners that it’s not that big of a deal. “I’m not worried about where you are / or who you will go home to / I’m just thinking about you,” he sings. The most narrative song on the album, “Matilda,” is notably not about Styles himself but instead is the story of an acquaintance processing trauma told through the lens of the Roald Dahl character. It contains, I think, the most striking scene I’ve ever heard Styles paint in his lyrics, of a kid on a bicycle pedaling so hard, “trying to lift off the ground on those old two wheels,” but gets more vague from there. Another topical track, “Boyfriends,” which Styles speaks very funnily about, is desperate for a punch line within the actual song.
During his shows, Styles tells his audience to “please feel free to be whoever it is you want to be in this room.” Harry’s House offers the clearest statement yet on what Styles wants that room to sound like. We have yet to discover who, exactly, Styles himself wants to be as a musician. I’m hoping there’s a feather boa involved. And I’m all the more excited to find out, and pass along the discovery to any extraterrestrial visitors I may encounter.