Prior to its release, the debut solo song from One Direction’s Harry Styles had been compared to the works of David Bowie and Queen. High praise and big expectations for a former boy-bander — but, then again, where did Paul McCartney get his start? Last year, Styles interviewed McCartney for advice and wisdom about going it alone, the first sign of whose career Styles is chasing. He then impersonated history’s greatest rock stars for a photo shoot and, later, announced his first single “Sign of the Times” on the 30th anniversary of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times. All that calculated preparation and fan-baiting had been building to a moment, one that has finally arrived: Harry Styles, solo musician, exists. “Sign of the Times” is as much of a rock-leaning ballad as the best One Direction songs are, but it also sets the tone for something bigger.
With Zayn and all the other 1Ders before Harry — Styles is the second-to-last member to release a solo song — there’s been little sense of them exceeding their career peak. But “Sign of the Times,” with its nearly six-minute run time, towering crescendo, guitar (!), and reliance on pure vocals rather than overproduction (though that falsetto does have some help), sounds like almost nothing else on the radio. It’ll be the odd man out between Ed Sheeran and Drake, and that’s exactly what a debut solo single should be.
“Sign of the Times” is a risk with a lot of payoff. It’s also brilliantly apolitical without sounding like it — “the times” he’s talking about are not the current state of world affairs, but rather a relationship, either with a lover or with his fans, or both. The song’s romanticism, both lyrically and the way it deliberately recalls rock’s past, also sets it and Harry apart from his peers. If this is his direction, it’ll be one worth following.