Photo Credit: Lillie Eiger
Harry Styles sees himself as the next great rock legend; he covers classics from the idols he seeks to emulate, and he subverts gender norms by wearing dresses on magazine covers – drawing, for better or for worse, comparisons to the late Kurt Cobain. Styles’ solo debut single “Sign of the Times” unashamedly wore its influences (Bowie, Prince, Queen) on its sleeve. The problem for Styles, however, is that for all his on-stage charm, good intentions, and tactful covers, his music has historically lacked the passion, raw energy, sharp focus, and individuality that made the artists he idolizes great.
On his third solo album titled Harry’s House Styles gestures towards finally loosening up and embracing the risk-taking that is required for any true trailblazing artist. He gets frisky on “Cinema” and “Keep Driving”, starts opening up about his mental health on “As It Was” and opts for a stylistic grab bag on “Music For A Sushi Restaurant” – fit with epic horn sections and cries of “scuba-duba-dubop-boo.”
Unfortunately, the music of Harry’s House is far too restrained for its own good. New instruments are added to the mix – drum machines, notably, take center stage, but in the absence of any structural experiments or major left turns, the streamlined music of Harry’s House ultimately blurs into a beige fog. Most confounding is why Styles – a proven vocal powerhouse – consistently decides to opt for brutally underwhelming vocal performances that make him sound like a side character in his own music.
There are hints of a better album here, though they never quite come to fruition. “Little Freak” is underwhelming in parts but does feature some great, imagery-rich lyricism that recalls Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers in equal measure (“Did you dress up for Halloween? // I spilled beer on your friend, I’m not sorry”). “Matilda”, meanwhile, recalls the grounded, yet nostalgic music of Lucy Dacus’ most recent LP Home Video, as he assures the titular character, “You don’t have to be sorry for leaving and growing up.” But this song is ultimately too polished, and Harry’s vocal too insipid, to inspire the same visceral emotion as the best songs from that album (“Thumbs”, “Triple Dog Dare”) do.
Perhaps the headline takeaway from Harry’s House is the friskier, more explicit side we see from the former One Direction star. It’s a reasonable path for the 28-year-old singer-songwriter to go in, though less easily justifiable are the lyrics with which Styles channels this newfound sexual freedom. If you thought “Watermelon Sugar” was an odd metaphor for the female orgasm then you should brace yourself for lines like, “You’re sweet ice cream, but you could use a flake or two” and “I dig your cinema” – which is apparently a euphemism for sex. More effective is the second half of “Keep Driving”, where after rattling off through yet more strained food-sex metaphors, Styles delivers the most explicit lyrics he’s penned to date. Drum machines and distorted guitars build as Styles hurriedly sings, “Cocaine, side boob // Choke her with a sea view” – the bigger sound mirroring the more graphic lyrics. Styles, it turns out, is at his most arresting in his directest moments.
Apart from “a few bleurgh-inducing moments” – as one NME critic put it – there’s nothing truly offensive about Harry’s House, but it’s hard not to feel as though amidst a sea of big-name writers and producers, Harry Styles gets lost on his third album; amiable but never particularly compelling. Given his real-life charisma, it’s a shame that Harry’s House feels destined to become little more than coffee shop, background music.