album review

Harry Styles, Work in Progress

Photo: Harry Styles via YouTube

The last time Harry Styles released an album, the rollout did not go as planned. One morning, the British singer-songwriter and erstwhile One Direction member was a guest on The Howard Stern Show, where he answered questions about his love life and performed songs off his late-2019 sophomore album, Fine Line. The next, he was on an unplanned break in the States, where an explosion of COVID-19 infections forced businesses and venues to close. Styles wisely postponed a spring 2020 North American tour out of caution; that March, for the first time in a long while, the singer found himself taking inventory of relationships neglected during his tenure in the boy band, which released an album every year between 2011 and 2015 and spent many of the intervening months on the road. It seemed as though Styles would initially maintain a similar pace in his solo career as the spring 2017 release of his self-titled debut dovetailed with the summer rollout of Dunkirk, the Christopher Nolan film in which Harry starred as an Allied soldier in the 1940 Battle of France. COVID broke the cycle of recording, releasing, promoting, and touring; Harry put work on pause and hung out with friends, using the unexpected break in his schedule to be more present in the lives of the people he cares about most.

We’ve heard the next bit a bunch: The music Harry Styles made when he got back into a groove took a profound interest in rest and getting off the grid with loved ones. Stars are just like us: exhausted. New works from radio’s heavy hitters map out their quarantine wellness routines. Escapism is the core theme of Lorde’s Solar Power. Quiet time inspired Taylor Swift’s return to acoustic songs and rustic scenes over folklore and evermore. Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is, among many things, a monument to the peace that logging off the apps can bring. Harry’s House, the third Styles album, follows suit. Its chief concerns are primarily physical, often carnal. Harry’s House is your quintessential spring release, a batch of bubbly, funk-inflected jams celebrating the bodily and emotional pleasures that new romance entails, an account of party nights and delicious eats and late-night heart-to-hearts. Five years into his solo career, the former boy-band star has settled into a precarious public life, sharing certain things while leaving the rest to the imagination. He’s left the door open to the idea that he’s sexually fluid while modeling gender-fluid fashions in concerts and magazine profiles; he’s also making cishet bros jealous while jet-setting with Olivia Wilde. (Performing 1D’s boyfriend pep talk “What Makes You Beautiful” and then backing Shania Twain on “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” at Coachella last month might have been the apex of Styles’s delicate balance of hetero romanticism and signified queerness, if it’s fair to call it that since he avoids labels.) Harry’s House offers a peek at the couple’s unique version of domesticity but doesn’t let us poke around past the foyer.

The record’s chief interests are food, drinks, sex, drugs, travel, and companionship. Opener “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” announces many of these themes in a curt first verse: “Green eyes, fried rice / I could cook an egg on you / Late night, game time / Coffee on the stove, yeah.” The late-album highlight “Keep Driving” feels like zipping through a friend’s camera roll and catching a glimpse of something you may not have intended to see: “Passports in footwells / Kiss her and don’t-tells.” The difficulties of a long-distance relationship are alluded to but not always elaborated on in any great depth. Deep in the lead single “As It Was,” Harry drops a line — “Leave America, two kids follow her” — that can’t be about anything other than dating Wilde, a New York native and mother of two. Elsewhere in the album, Styles keeps the sentiments broad and vague enough to be relatable to literally anyone pining for their significant other. The refrain from the effervescent “Daylight” — “If I was a bluebird / I would fly to you / You’d be the spoon / Dip you in honey so I could be sticking to you” — is just as effective when you’re waiting for someone across town to come home from work as when you’re missing someone who lives in another continent. Tumult stalks the margins of this life as “Keep Driving” cruises past riots in the States, and “As It Was” points to changes in the world it never names. Harry’s House is true to the experience of this decade in the ways it shores itself up from the troubles outside its door and focuses on improving the relationships inside. But the lyrics seem almost deliberately breezy and quaint, blowing by images they don’t expound on like scenery racing past your car during a road trip. Styles’s carefully cultivated coyness keeps us ever at arm’s length.

But it’s this slipperiness that makes Harry’s House a real treat for the ears. Something the album handles incredibly well is recalibrating the sound underneath the singer’s vocals and lyrics. His self-titled solo debut was a big pivot, a hearty embrace of folk and lad rock from a performer who’d always delivered those sounds with a hefty side of pop accessibility. Tracks such as the wounded “Ever Since New York” and the stately “Sign of the Times” repositioned Styles as a student of Mick Jagger and David Bowie, rock stars who stormed the pop charts and challenged conventional masculinity in the ’70s. Some of that classic-rock spirit carried over to Fine Line; “Golden” approximated Fleetwood Mac so neatly that it was no surprise to see Styles joining Stevie Nicks to sing the Tom Petty parts of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” at the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in which she was inducted as a solo artist. (Rock elders love Harry. He’s friends with Nicks and Mick Fleetwood. Jagger paid the singer a hilariously withering compliment this month, saying they’re friends, and he sees a lot of himself in Styles, but adding that he doesn’t think the younger star has nailed all the moves.) But Fine Line was just as interested in radio hits: Situating the poppy “Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You,” and “Lights Up” early in the track list announced that this wasn’t just another straightforward rock album. Harry’s House strikes a new balance, keeping one foot firmly planted in the pop-rock tradition as the album explores modern sounds in alternative and indie pop, juggling radio fare and intriguing grooves.

The band in residence for Harry’s House is the same one from his first two projects. Multi-instrumentalists Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson are the primary players and producers. Their interplay gives depth to the songs while Styles skirts across the surface. Funk-pop jams such as “Sushi” and “Late Night Talking” serve up quirky sounds and arrangements while the singer lingers in his upper register, signifying a huge crush as much through lilting melodies and soaring falsettos as through any overt proclamations about his feelings. Confections such as “Daylight” and “Grapejuice” take after the saccharine songs Paul McCartney made during the Wings years. Harry’s House feels a bit like McCartney’s Back to the Egg, a wide-ranging collection of ideas that don’t necessarily work all the time but leave you impressed by the ways the players have challenged themselves. You also catch a whiff of guys like Benny Sings and Omar Apollo and Rex Orange County, singer-songwriters whose playfulness as musicians results in albums that skate between styles from one song to the next. Scan the credits to Harry’s House and you’ll spy Dev Hynes playing cello on the exquisite “Matilda,” John Mayer and Ben Harper pitching in guitar lines, and legendary bassist and sometime Mayer sideman Pino Palladino performing limber low end on “Daydreaming,” a flip of a Brothers Johnson song. The rest of Harry’s House goes to the ’80s pop recidivism expected from a big-deal pop star in the era when Justin Bieber and the Kid Laroi’s “Stay,” the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears,” and Coldplay’s “Higher Power” circle the sounds of Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” and A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

The mix of ’70s rock, ’80s New Wave, ’90s folk, and 21st-century bedroom pop feels inspired if imperfect. It seems as though Styles is still working out how to be himself, where his art needs to go, and how much to tell us about the life he leads outside it. Harry’s House gives us flashes of that world but also tries to make it as relatable as an album of songs about dropping everything to fly around the planet and hang out with TV and movie star Olivia Wilde could possibly be — though the way the lyrics achieve this is often to lean heavily into cliché: “It’s not the same as it was,” “’Cause baby, loving you’s the real thing,” “Baby, you were the love of my life, whoa,” “I can’t get you off my mind.” “Matilda” makes these lines feel slight, reminding us of the sensitive depth he’s capable of. The song — which offers a darker, more adult spin on the reassuring message of “What Makes You Beautiful” as Styles tells someone who’s been through a lot in the past that it’s fine to cut toxic people out of the picture — has a weight to it that Harry’s House is frustratingly uninterested in. (To be fair, though, “Matilda” fits neatly into the larger story: Home is wherever you make it and whomever you make it with.) When this album bucks cliché, it is delightfully wild. The drug references — “cocaine, side boob” — suggest there’s a lot we’re not being told, but they’re strewn about like everything else, a stream of images not unlike a savvy tastemaker’s Instagram account. We can use that, though. Every album doesn’t have to talk about coping mechanisms and therapy and mass death and political disorder. It’s warm out, and a rubbery bass line in a carefree bop has its place.

Harry Styles, Work in Progress