If there’s one word that’s going to scupper the music industry, it’s “authenticity”. It’s the word people trot out on shows like The X Factor, it’s the one that somehow seems to grant gravity to anyone who utters it, and it’s usually the shield of aspiration behind which (unfailingly male) singer-songwriters like Harry Styles hide behind.
So here we are, an album so ‘authentic’ it’s even named Harry Styles just to ensure there’s no doubt he’s leaving his One Direction past behind. This is me, it proclaims, giving us a back-to-front necklace on the sleeve while the man himself hides his face. It is literally dripping with fresh beads of supposed musical purity.
And we’d probably buy into it too if it didn’t seem so calculated. Fair enough, whatever Harry Styles was going to do would be under strict scrutiny, but there’s a tussle here between what we think we know about him and what he might actually be. The latter, we fear, might just be a desperate old man trapped in a young one’s body.
The good news is this: he hasn’t gone fully Ed Sheeran (apart from Sweet Creature) like Niall Horan has. There is something fantastically dark and almost psych-leaning about the opener Meet Me In The Hallway, by all counts a stunning introduction to a new form. If only he’d kept it up, though – instead we get the Against All Odds lead single Sign Of The Times to quickly undo that early favour.
What this sounds like, more than anything, is the work of an excited person who’s just raided their parents’ record collection and decided that’s what ‘real music’ is. Except it seems like a facsimile on Carolina, and on Two Ghosts it lacks any such bite as Styles sings “we’re just two ghosts swimming in a glass half-empty”. It’s a song that’s so desperate to soundtrack a US teen drama it’s practically holding a defibrillator to Marissa Cooper from The OC.
Elsewhere? Well, there’s an about-turn on the second half of the album that tries to serve Rolling Stones knock-offs on Only Angel and Kiwi, but ends up more Kasabian thanks to Styles being way too sanitised to carry off the swagger. There’s balance – and legit reason to coin the phrase ‘saved by the Bhasker’ – on his ex-baiting Ever Since New York and the closing track From The Dining Table, which occupy a space that Styles seems comfortable in and are a joy to listen to (those stunning strings on the closer though). Why the sandwich filling between this and the opener couldn’t be the same is beyond us, but it certainly makes a good case for Styles sticking around.
There was an argument recently that said teenage girls govern people’s music taste on a wider level. These songs do reinforce a certain methodology here, and Styles has certainly aimed this ‘authentic’ guitar music at them in an accessible way. But there’s an uncanny full-circular moment on this debut album that reveals more about him than anything else, and it links back to his ex Taylor Swift.
“You said you never met one girl who had as many James Taylor records as you,” she sang on Begin Again. Harry Styles, even outside the obvious Carolina song reference (and a Van Morrison / Moondance one on Two Ghosts), seems to be that guy: the one who talks down to a girl about their music taste by judging what’s cool, the one who calls them a sweet ‘creature’ without realising its underhand superiority, the one who can only adjoin the phrase “la la la la” to a chorus of Woman. He’s the sort of man who claims he loves women while shaming them for their behaviour.
And we’d have almost fallen for that charm had Styles not given himself away on Kiwi. Rather than explain why, here are some choice lines from it: “She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/ Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect”. “When she’s alone, she goes home to a cactus/ In a black dress, she’s such an actress”. “And now she’s all over me, it’s like I paid for it/ It’s like I paid for it.”
If girls really are dictating people’s tastes, they deserve a hell of a lot better than a man like Harry Styles comparing one to a prostitute.