In which a former boy-band darling goes in yet another direction
Harry Styles has become a god. This was clear enough on his solo debut back in the spring of 2017; now, on the eve of his sophomore release, it’s only getting progressively clearer, what with the imaginative glimpses we’ve been treated to. And yet this release seems to be his way of telling us (and himself) not to lose sight of his aching humanity.
In the run-up to the big day, each single outshone the last. The videos, too. First was “Lights Up,” which hit YouTube on 11 October (National Coming Out Day in the US); next “Watermelon Sugar,” which proved to have the greatest sticking power in my head; and finally “Adore You,” which, as the SNL performance suggested, gives the background vocals as much glory as the foreground. Only the first and last of those singles have videos attached, but you can tell the artist is increasingly preoccupied with narrative, telling cohesive stories. “Adore You,”* for example, constructs a fable around a boy growing up in a superstitious seaside community, whose unusual smile isolates him until he learns to harness it in such a way that it actually powers the whole village like an energy source. And as for “Lights Up” on Coming Out Day, featuring a lot of different bodies onscreen in any given shot…well, fans have gone crazy speculating on what that might mean.
But the narrative pull carries over onto the album itself. Songs like “She” examine a character from a third-person perspective: in this case it is a man attempting to navigate his day while haunted by the image of a strange woman–though with each chorus we are projected into the character’s head and hear his voice in first-person. Just as much is said by the long jam at the end, the guitar solo like an agonizingly circular thought process. The cumulative effect of the first four tracks, “Golden” and the three spirited singles, is one of irresistible movement–but the direct lead-in to the comparatively sparse, mournful ballads “Cherry” and “Falling” signals a narrative thread to the work as a whole. Our hero tries to lose himself in dancing before finally having to confront the emptiness and ugliness that come with the dissolution of a romance. Those ballads have their roots in “Sweet Creature” and “From the Dining Table” on Harry Styles; but that album focused much more on smaller vignettes, whereas this one provides us with a broader arc.
Outside of traditional storytelling, there’s a lot of musical painting to boot. On “Lights Up,” the lull created by the mix of instruments on each verse is disturbed at the chorus: a single arpeggiated piano chord at a time accompanies the voices as they sing “All the lights couldn’t put out the dark / running through my heart”–indeed, like a single spotlight in a darkened room. “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” meanwhile, establishes a bright Caribbean-influenced mood, with syncopation and studio magic, supporting the theory that the song represents the acceptance stage of grief. It’s particularly accessible material.
The album sweeps an array of influences. “To Be So Lonely” is similar in theme to the two self-aware meditations preceding it, but feels different: it sounds like it could have been an outtake from Bridge Over Troubled Water (or maybe the plucky guitar just reminds me of “El Condor Pasa”). I was delighted to hear strong strains of Joni Mitchell in the open tuning of “Canyon Moon”–maybe the title should have tipped me off–not to mention that the repeated lyric “I’m going home” recalls her “I’m coming home” on Blue’s “California.” The album’s closer, “Fine Line,” hearkens back to the artist’s admiration of Bowie with properly involved orchestration (its run time exceeds six minutes). And the choir supporting him on “Treat People with Kindness” has a “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” quality to it.
Speaking of harmonies, there’s three-part voicing to spare here. In “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” the layering on “tonight” (heavy on leading tones) reminded me of the Association. Almost every song is inevitably punctuated with choral chimes, echoing, shimmering. And it seems like the artist usually doesn’t do them himself. One of the great effects of these is that he uses all the contributors he’s congregated over the course of the album’s gestation, infusing his efforts with a sense of togetherness and commonality. They’re all putting their all into it.
Arguably they’re following his lead. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite things about Harry Styles’s technique is that he always sounds like he is trying–his voice stretches with the exertion of conveying the emotion he has written about. It feels personal to the listener. It’s a feeling that drew me to the debut, got me excited for this release, and makes me look forward to wherever he chooses to go in the future. Because he isn’t going on his own–he’s taking us along for the ride. Suffice it to say this is no sophomore slump.
*The video whose storyline differs from its song is a concept he explored on the first album; from the “Kiwi” video, in which a group of schoolchildren have a (tremendously fun-looking) cake fight, one would hardly guess that the song’s conflict centers around the narrator’s actress girlfriend’s pregnancy.
Image: from Olivia Petter’s review in the 6 December issue of Vogue