How many former boy band artists can claim that Arcade Fire covered their song on BBC radio? One, exactly one. The Canadian band has honored many other artists with covers – David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, The Clash, The Beatles, Huey Lewis and the News, Prince, the list goes on – but adding the lead single, “As it Was”, from a Harry Styles’ new album may be just what is needed to permit devout anything-but-pop fans to cross the aisle and give this X Factor, boy-band alum a chance.
Not that he needs it. He has a fanbase breaking world records and he’s perfected the manufactured pop boy band formula (bits of restricted pitches + homogenized timbral palettes + monotonous loudness levels = chart topper). Harry’s House will be the place we spend the summer. Don’t worry, no one has to know you overate his “Watermelon Sugar”, you dirty dog.
The 13-track album is a little bit of this and a little bit of that spanning the last 40 years of popular (not just pop) music. Giving us the funk, opening track “Music For a Sushi Restaurant”’s noodly guitar, shortly decaying shakers and stacks of vocals announce over his megaphone that he is openly inviting you to his house where you will have a meal with his Funkadelic-ed Parliament bass lines. He doesn’t want you to get lost, but how can you not?
It’s all put together under one roof in a neat, unassuming way, made refreshing and palatable by his persona that Rolling Stone refers to as “Mick Jagger for our more enlightened age.” Nothing is written solely by Harry, he always invites his longtime collaborator Kid Harpoon over, occasionally Amy Allen, and in “Daydreaming” he’s aided by Quincy Jones and his Q-styled classic funk-pop, delivering something in the vein of a Timberlake/Pharrell collab. Despite the packed writing team, you can still see Harry’s stylish imprint throughout the floorplan.
Some may linger in “Late Night Talking” but the suspicion is his PG-rated ”Grapejuice” will be in everyone’s evening garden playlist. Aggressively plucked jazz guitar and reversed tremolo cross the space in round of two notes. It is reminiscent of “How Soon is Now” but it doesn’t last long enough to feel copied. These are followed by “As It Was”, which already has almost a googol of streams and views. Even A-ha, from whom the songs loans more than a little inspiration, are reaping the benefits.
Harry’s shameless and morally unrestrained jezebel in “Little Freak” is tamed by his drippy faucet 808-tom fill; he purrs his pubescent lyrics over organically mixed, finger-picked guitar while the hooky chorus tickles a little electronic bent of Juno-esque synth pads.
Quarantine for Harry gave him time to sing and play guitar, resulting a in a couple of stripped back ballads. How sweet is his “Matilda”? Whether it is a Roald Dahl reference or someone specific, we all know one so just settle in and let him be your big brother too.
We are back to funk in “Cinema” with its Poe-beat and envelope filter guitar; you can ignore the inane lyrics and have good times with Harry in this Daft Punk meets Chic track. The record continues to fit decades of musical influences. Breaking the 4/4 pop mold, Harry opts for a triplet polyrhythmic groove and a fuzz guitar hook in his short and sweet “Keep Driving”; cocaine and side boobs are permissible.
The country-twanging folk song in “Boyfriends” gives Harry a chance to spotlight his shifting and drifting vocal harmonies. This is again in evidence on the closing “Love Of My Life”, where its supported synth pads and punchy stabs with cavernous reverb. It ends the record with Paul Simon-sounding dry, in-your-face intimacy of just hanging out in Harry’s House, simple piano closing out the evening.
Harry takes you through a day in the life of a superstar, breadcrumbing his way through his past and current biography. While we all know he isn’t going to win a Pulitzer, the hooks are catchy, his vocal range expanded, engineering pristine, with sprinkles of what we can only imagine are songs that always end up on his own playlists. While you don’t have to listen to the album in full, you may find yourself not skipping any of the tracks. You have permission, you know, to overlook the kiss-assery of the PR-machine in this one because the praise isn’t about the star, it is about walking the line of revealing the soul of an artist who happens to be a popstar.
This jack of all trades, who is never without a stitch to wear, is growing up to be an icon whose path will be studied in Success in the Music Industry 101. This year he’s headlined Coachella, spent weeks upon weeks at number 1 in the UK charts, has two movies coming out and will even reading the CBeebies Bedtime Story on the BBC kids’ channel. He is turning us all into impressionable teens salivating for his next track. Harry will steal your summer playlist and with the indulgent Christmas bells closing “As it Was” he may just take you through your Love, Actually streaming season. You won’t be ashamed of being wild about Harry.