A Quick Chat About Every Song On Harry Styles’s Debut Solo Album, ‘Harry Styles’
with Katie Heaney
Jane Hu: Hi, hi Katie!
Thanks for joining me in discussing Harry Styles’s debut album Harry Styles, dropped last Friday, and currently sitting — kind of uncomfortably — in my Spotify downloads. Maybe it’s because the cover art is this:
I need to work through it and given your long history of Harry fanfic and my review of Midnight Memories (RIP), I don’t know who better to discuss Harry Styles with than you. Styles (or should I call him Harry?) isn’t the first One Direction-er to pick up a solo career after the fallout of the boy group, but he was kind of their star, so this album feels significant in not only signalling the future of Styles, but potentially that of the group as well.
So, uh, why am I having such a hard time with it? Is Harry Styles just so complicated that it’s listenability — contra earworms such as “Live While We’re Young” and “Best Song Ever” — takes on a more sophisticated cast? Compared to the 1D canon, it does most resemble their last Beatles-inspired album Made in the A.M., so maybe this is just the logical conclusion. Or, maybe it’s just me? Harry was never my favorite Directioner, but, then again, it is a post-Directioner world, so maybe it’s time to move on.
Katie Heaney: Here I must specify that Harry was absolutely my favorite Directioner, always, through every stage of hair growth. I loved him so much that I almost assumed I’d prefer his eventual solo career because the rest of the boys were basically dressing. But now that his actual solo career has begun I miss the ensemble! He is still so charming, and so handsome, but I wonder if I liked him best as the star of a group.
JH: Katie, is this your way of telling me that you didn’t like it?
KH: Eek! I can’t bring myself to say that about him. I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think I was expecting something like it, but still wasn’t ready for it, if that makes sense?
It’s good, I think. It’s well-produced and like, “slick.” And actual music people seem to find it impressive, which makes me feel like I have to think it’s impressive too. His voice sounds just beautiful. But in my heart of hearts, I think what I wanted from solo Harry Styles was… a Carly Rae Jepsen record.
JH: Wow, yes, I have this anxiety all the time about actual music people. Like, I only ever write about pop music — and a cappella, I guess, if my Hairpin archive is any evidence — so I don’t know if I even have the vocabulary to talk about Harry Styles. I think someone on my Twitter feed called the album a “banger,” so now I’m just generally paranoid that I don’t “get it.” Unlike you, I don’t know what I was expecting, but probably something more along the lines of Jepsen pop too. One thing the album has clarified for me is that the 1D boyband aesthetic is not reproducible at the level of a solo act, and the closest thing we might ever have to a pop spin-off is Zayn (who, I think, actually produces bangers). Still, here we are! Should we go through the album, track by track?
KH: It’s so not a banger! Lorde’s “Green Light” is a banger! Banger does not just mean “good.” But okay, yes, let’s do it.
JH: Speaking of, I think I have more to say about Lorde’s vintage Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo dress in “Green Light” music video than I do about this album, but, whatever, here we gooooo.
Meet Me in the Hallway
KH: This track feels reminiscent of the Flaming Lips to me. I am going to be really self-conscious about my artist comparisons here, I know literally nothing, but that’s my first thought! And I feel about this song the way I feel about the Flaming Lips: the kind of music I pretended to like in high school because of a boy I liked. Which means… boring. Agh, I feel so bad!!! Like he cares!
JH: The intro feels a little trip-hoppy to me or, like, Elliott Smith (?) (again know nothing LOL), which is basically equivalent to what I listened to in high school. As an opener, I actually think it’s okay. The use of steel guitar is intriguing!
Sign of the Times
KH: This video made me lol. Goodness gracious, does he ever look handsome in it. But why is he flying!!! Hahaha. Strangely, though Harry Styles has been very young for the duration of his career, this is the track/album that makes his age most acute to me. He is very much a twenty-three year-old guy. With the voice of an angel. And a perfect face. And youthful emotional angst. And an overlong song.
JH: He has incredible bone structure, for sure. And this says more about me than Harry Styles, but part of why he was never my favorite had to do with the fact that I have a knee-jerk aversion to alpha males. (For more on this, see Mitski’s wonderfully generous reading of the album.) Harry is definitely “aging” like an alpha too. I mean, is this video a shout out to Fellini’s 8½, aka the film about white middle-age male crises?
To be honest, I didn’t love this single when it came out, but now looking at the rest of the album, it’s probably one of the better songs on it.
KH: OK, I feel pretty confident saying this one is very Beck-ian! So I like it. I read some review of this album that listed this as one of the songs that didn’t work, which further cements my confusion re: music criticism, because I’m pretty sure this is the one track on the album that basically everyone likes. This would be great as an accompaniment to the opening credits to a romantic comedy about an uptight young woman with a severe ponytail.
JH: Oh wow, I can see that. I was describing this song as “like The Beatles, but worse.” So we have Beatles and Beck: two musical acts that kind of stole a lot anyway. Am I doing music criticism right.
KH: This song drags for me. I don’t like when a song makes me aware of the singer trying to pack too many syllables into a verse, or stretch too few, and I feel that way fairly often listening to this album! “Trying-to-remember-how-it-feels-to-have-a-heartbeat” vs. “We’re just two ghosts swimming in a glass half-empty-y-y-y-yyyy.” I know that’s picky. I think what I’m reacting to here is not the specifics of any set of lyrics as much as it is the recognition that I am not the target audience of this album. Which hurts my feelings.
JH: Yeah!! But also, who is the target audience? Like, as a 1D completist, I’m upset. I’m kind of okay with this song, though, because it’s the album’s poppiest? Like, it’s not good. But it’s at least trying to be honest about where Harry comes from. “We’re not who we used to be / we’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me,” indeed.
KH: I like this one. Imagine getting this on a mix CD from your high school crush or something. You would die. “Sweet Creature” doesn’t feel as effortful as some of the other songs on Harry Styles, to me. This is perhaps the first track on the album that feels authentic to Harry’s voice, his songwriting, and what I think I understand about his character. It’s sweet! He seems like a sweet guy! This one is just straightforwardly nice, for me.
KH: +1. I’m with you on this one. Though this conversation is making me realize that I actually can’t imagine a high school crush including Harry Styles on a mixed tape, even though high school boyfriends did make me mixes that included exactly the kind of rock that Harry Styles is now citing. There’s something belated about the Cool Boy Rock that this album is trying to resurrect, whereas the pop of 1D felt eternally relevant. 1D’s pop citations were self-consciously corny, whereas the earnestness of Harry Styles is cloying and masculinist all at once. Wow, maybe I just hate the rock music. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
KH: I feel like only Beyoncé can get away with a preamble as lengthy, and as dissonant from the rest of the song, as “Only Angel” has. It’s probably not called a preamble, but you know what I mean. I also think this is maybe the obligatory post-boy band “I Have Sexual Intercourse” track. (“That she’s gonna be an angel, just you wait and see / When it turns out she’s a devil in between the sheets.”) We know!!!
JH: Oh, girl, I know what you mean. Harry Styles fucks. That said, do I find this song erotic? I like the use of cowbell? Is that final choral note at the end supposed to represent orgasm? Oh god, WRITING ABOUT THIS ALBUM IS SO HARD, KATIE.
KH: Ruby said it better than I ever could.
JH: L O L
I think I would definitely describe myself as “Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect.”
Ever Since New York
KH: I like this song alright, but I think it suffers for ringing a bit hollow. I’m not hearing the suffering, and I think a more soulful/maybe a less perfect live performance might elevate what is otherwise a fairly basic, lightly folk-y ballad.
JH: Katie, you’re a champ for dragging me through this. Like, by “Ever Since New York,” I’m pretty much checked out on this album. I think the album might actually gets progressively worse. That, or I get progressively impatient, I’m not sure which. This actually sounds like a bad track on a 1D album, so I’ll at least give it props for family resemblance.
KH: B-b-b-benny and the Jets!!! Is all I can think about! That, and I hate the talking at the beginning. Who is that. This makes me feel like a grandmother. “Turn down that racket!!!”
JH: Yeah, my ears feel a wee bit assaulted by this track. The chorus is literally “Woman [x8].”
From the Dining Table
KH: I said I thought this album would’ve provided lots of hits for The O.C. soundtracks and that is especially true of this song. Toward the end of this something lovely happens: he sings “Maybe one day you’ll call me / Tell me you’re sorry too” and then there are STRINGS! I wish this album had more strings. And then in an instant it’s gone again. Back to brooding.
JH: And harmonies! This album could’ve used more harmonizing, but maybe that’s just the part of me that misses 1D.
Jane Hu is a writer and grad student living in Oakland.