Imagine you’re a 23-year-old multi-millionaire who is desired by legions of women and men from around the world. You’ve just decamped to Jamaica to record your first solo album. The world is at your disposal. Clearly, this is the time to go big and bold. You are among a small handful of musicians with the means to make the most wondrous, ridiculous, awe-inspiring, and thoroughly excessive music possible. The question is: What do you do with all of that potential?
If you’re Harry Styles, the talented and charismatic frontman of the most successful pop-rock band of the decade, One Direction, the answer is … frustratingly little. Styles’ self-titled debut leans heavily on winsome, richly atmospheric ballads that, with one grand exception (the very good single “Sign Of The Times”), never really seem to go anywhere. Favoring lightly strummed acoustic guitars, dreamy vocals, and soft-rock melodies, Styles curiously has pooled his considerable resources as a young and sexy pop star in the prime of his career to make music best suited for the staid confines of adult contemporary radio. He’s a larger-than-life arena-rock heart-throb whose big statement is a coffeeshop record. What a letdown.
There’s just enough good on Harry Styles to make its muted tone seem especially disappointing. The uproarious “Only Angel” opens with a sweeping fanfare of choral voices and strings, like a random snippet from a Muse record. Then a boisterous glam-rock riff kicks in accompanied by an irresistible “woo-hoo” hook. In the verse, Styles sings unrepentantly about lust: “I got splinters in my knuckles crawling across the floor,” he pants. By the time the chorus appears for a second time, Styles has introduced a damn cowbell into the mix. That’s it, Harry. That’s the stuff.