Harry Styles, Prince Of Pop, Takes A Stab At Rock Stardom

Here’s a sign of the times for you: The most famous member of the world’s leading boy band is trying to become a rock star. And not a rock star in the vague, modern sense as applicable to rappers and athletes and those who achieve wild popularity in any field. (Quoth Chuck Klosterman, “If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a ‘rock-star C.P.A.’ when describing your business to less-hip neighbors.”) Thanks to his six-year tenure in One Direction, Harry Styles is already as much of a “rock star” as a boy band member can be. With his self-titled debut solo album, he’s attempting to embody the old-fashioned sense of the phrase.

The music Styles is rolling out is old-fashioned, too. Lead single “Sign Of The Times,” despite its Prince-nicking title, is a great big Bowie piano ballad, ’70s vintage but softened for the modern mainstream, like “Life On Mars?” as reimagined by Travis. It is an exercise in sweeping, string-laden grandeur, a song that felt like flying even before Styles soared over the Scottish countryside in the video. And despite that weightlessness, it rocks.

Even given One Direction’s affinity for rock gestures — guitar was always a main ingredient of their singles, and their later material often recalled the likes of Extreme and Mr. Big — “Sign Of The Times” was a surprising opening blast. From his tousled Lion-O haircut to his much-circulated comments championing the validity of young girls’ tastes, Styles has fully embraced his status as a teen idol, and teen idols generally do not rock. Think of Justin Bieber or Nick Jonas or Styles’ former One Direction bandmate Zayn Malik: They all make sexed-up cutting-edge R&B, sometimes with electronic undercurrents, always with an approachable pop sheen. That has been the 21st century archetype ever since Justin Timberlake styled himself as the heir to Michael Jackson. It’s durable.

One Direction never really fit into that mold, though. Even when they strayed away from rock, they veered more toward the sensitive folkie side of the teen idol spectrum. It’s a path 1D’s Niall Horan is continuing to forge with his own solo career, one that served as the launchpad for John Mayer and Ed Sheeran before those guys realized their more omnivorous ambitions. Historically, the Sensitive Dude With Acoustic Guitar is perhaps even more pervasive than the Sexy Pop Singer, perhaps because it’s a lot easier to pull off: You don’t necessarily have to be drop-dead gorgeous to play that role, you can’t really age out of it, and the live show seems a lot less involved.

There is a bit of that business on Harry Styles in the form of second single “Sweet Creature,” a fingerpicked guitar ballad in the tradition of “Blackbird.” (Paul McCartney, after all, was the original boy-bander-turned-Serious Rock Star.) When it debuted last week, “Sweet Creature” struck me as a One Direction song with stubble. But in the context of the other nine tracks it feels a lot less like an exercise in teeny-bopping and more like fodder for a folk-rocker’s mid-concert interludes, to be performed while perched on a stool during the stripped-down portion of the set. The grit Styles conveys in his vocals is authentic, or at least convincing. (Did you know that in addition to vying for Serious Rock Star status, Styles is attempting to be a Serious Actor too?)

Understated folksy sounds bookend the tracklist, too. “Meet Me In The Hallway” begins the album by casting Styles’ passionate howls against reverberating plucks and strums out of the Richard Thompson playbook; “From The Dining Table” ends it with shades of Wilco and Nick Drake, Styles whispering about a morning spent getting drunk and “playing with myself”(!) in a hotel room (“I’ve never felt less cool”) atop melancholy riffage and, eventually, a miniature symphony. His TV performances in support of the album have highlighted more rambunctious sorts of roots rock: On SNL, it was “Ever Since New York,” a strummy sing-along with a chorus that shines like sunrise breaking over Laurel Canyon. And on Today, decked out in a bright pink suit, he debuted “Carolina,” a sauntering “Stuck In The Middle With You” sendup periodically interrupted by staccato “la la la” vocals and a dramatic swirl of strings á la “Glass Onion.”

These songs are largely effective, but none of them communicate Styles’ rock-star ambitions quite so clearly as “Only Angel” and “Kiwi,” a pair of tunes planted like a flag smack in the middle of the album. “Only Angel” is his Rolling Stones hip-swinger, a sex romp built from handclaps and cowbell and salacious details such as “Broke a finger knocking on your bedroom door/ I got splinters in my knuckles crawling across the floor.” “Kiwi” jacks up the intensity even farther; it’s a straight-ahead overdriven barnburner á la MC5 (OK, fine, Wolfmother), and if we are to understand the album as “a song cycle about women and relationships” (per Cameron Crowe’s Rolling Stone feature), it might be considered the aftermath of the “Only Angel” encounter. The song peaks when a gobsmacked Styles hears from the object of his infatuation, “I’m having your baby! It’s none of your business!”

Styles more or less holds his own in these aggro moments, but his rock remains at its best with a little pop in it. “Two Ghosts,” the one that’s allegedly about Taylor Swift, finds him successfully channeling noted Swiftie Ryan Adams for a twilight slow dance accented by weeping slide guitar. And “Woman” — which begins with Styles asking, “Should we just search ‘romantic comedies’ on Netflix and then see what we find?” — rides the best “Bennie And The Jets” piano-drums float since “Super Rich Kids” into a cloud of sound effects and terse guitar spasms. That one frames the lust (it’s always lust with this guy) in terms of longing, jealousy, and even violence: “Apologies are never gonna fix this” is rhymed with “Promises are broken like the stitches.”

If all these comparisons to other artists seem overkill, it’s only because Harry Styles works not just as a name but a concept. On first pass the album feels like a young performer trying on various grownup guises as if raiding a costume closet, though perhaps that sensation will be less prevalent for listeners less familiar with Styles’ former life as a boy-bander. Upon further exposure, as that history disappears into the background and the songs ingratiate themselves on their own terms, something like a personal aesthetic begins to emerge: the rich young playboy with a pretty face, a sick vinyl collection, and a void in his soul ready to be filled with every available vice.

Does it sometimes come off corny? Hell yeah, it does! Is it safer and smoother than such lascivious subject matter demands? It sure is. (What would someone like Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner think of this music, I wonder?) But the album works better than a teen-pop veteran’s bid at rock stardom has any right to. The songs are consistently strong. Jeff Bhasker’s production is impeccable. And Styles benefits from striding bravely into territory that’s rarely represented in today’s mainstream. We aren’t just lacking for teen idols-turned-rock stars, we’re lacking for rock stars in general. The throne is empty, so Harry Styles might as well keep it warm for a while.

CHART WATCH

The big chart story this week, as previously reported, is DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” — featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne — debuting at #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. Among the achievements therein: It’s Khaled’s first #1, Chance’s first #1 (and, surprisingly, his first single to even hit the top 40), Quavo’s first #1 as a solo artist (after hitting #1 with Migos earlier this year), Weezy’s third #1 (following “Lollipop” and Jay Sean’s “Down”), and Bieber’s fourth #1 (following “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself”).

Because “What Do You Mean” also entered the Hot 100 on top, Bieber becomes the third artist to debut at #1 multiple times, joining Mariah Carey and Britney Spears. And with his Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee collab “Despacito” up to a new #3 peak this week, Bieber lands two songs in the top 3 for the second time. (He also did it with “Love Yourself” and “Sorry” in Feb. 2016.) Thanks as always to Billboard for the stats.

The success of “I’m The One” means Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” falls to #2 after one week on top. Kendrick Lamar’s former chart-topper “HUMBLE.” falls to #4, while Sheeran’s former 12-week leader “Shape Of You” descends to #5. Holding at #6 is the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” extending the Chainsmokers’ run to 53 straight weeks with a song in the top 10 (second only to Katy Perry’s 69-week run in 2010-11). Future’s “Mask Off” is down to #7, though I expect it to rise again next week thanks to its new video costarring Amber Rose. The rest of the top 10 remains stagnant from last week: Kyle and Lil Yachty’s “iSpy” at #8, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3″ at #9, and Kygo and Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” at #10.

Over on the albums chart, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. rules for a third straight week on the strength of 173,000 equivalent units — that’s 57,000 in sales, 12,000 in album-equivalent track purchases, and a still-impressive 105,000 in streaming equivalent units. Gorillaz follow at #2 with 140,000 units and 115,000 in pure sales for Humanz, which would have been enough for a #1 debut in many weeks. It’s their best sales week ever, and the #2 start ties their career high with Plastic Beach in 2010. And entering at #3 is Mary J. Blige’s Strength Of A Woman with 78,000 units and 72,000 in sales.

After Drake’s More Life at #4 and Ed Sheeran’s ÷ at #5 comes the latest Epic AF compilation at #6 with 48,000 units culled from track sales and streaming. That one includes Khaled’s #1-debuting “I’m The One” and other smashes. (It’s easy to build a hit album out of preexisting hit songs!) At 7-8-9 are Bruno Mars, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 , and the Chainsmokers. And rounding out the top 10 is Willie Nelson, whose God’s Problem Child begins with 36,000 units and 34,000 in sales.

POP FIVE

Miley Cyrus – “Malibu”
My first thought: Miley’s back-to-her-roots makeover is going to result in a lot more airplay than Lady Gaga’s did. My second thought: I can’t tell if this is low-key awesome or is just low-key. My third thought: The lyrics are maybe a bit too meta for their own good. All in all, “Malibu” is working for me.

Halsey – “Eyes Closed”
There is a lot to like about Halsey’s latest exercise in darkly shaded trap-pop. The melodies are hooky, and the brightly plinking guitar is a fine counterpoint to the booming bass. In fact, the moments when it’s just Halsey’s voice and that nimble guitar work make for some genuinely beautiful moments. “Eyes Closed” losing something when the beat drops and the sweeping chorus kicks in; it’s suitably huge, but it feels a bit anonymous and maybe even outdated, like BANKS or something. Nonetheless, I’ve listened three times now and it’s grown on me with every listen, as has the even-better “Now Or Never.” Pretty curious to hear how the rest of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom shapes up.

Noah Cyrus – “Stay Together”
While we develop our opinions on Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu,” let’s take a moment to appreciate her sister Noah’s latest single. It’s a wistful piano ballad about one-night stands, kind of like Taylor Swift’s “22” crossed with “Tiny Dancer” — or, sorry not sorry, a more wistfully grown-up “Party In The USA.” By the way, that “NC-17″ label at the beginning does not refer to NSFW content; Noah Cyrus is 17 years old, so she is cleverly titling her debut album NC-17.

PSY – “New Face”
“New Face,” same old PSY.

Lil Yachty – “Bring It Back”

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • An unnamed source told E! that Taylor Swift has been working around the clock “writing and recording her new album in Nashville for the last several months.” [E!]
  • On behalf of Vogue, Frank Ocean took photos at the Met Ball: of Gigi Hadid, Jaden Smith, A$AP Rocky kissing Gwyneth Paltrow, and more. [Vogue]
  • Selena Gomez announced a second season of 13 Reasons Why, the controversial series she co-produces for Netflix. [CNN]
  • Karrueche Tran is reportedly ready to testify that Chris Brown physically abused and threatened to kill her. [Vibe]
  • Demi Lovato announced a docuseries I Am: Demi Lovato coming exclusively to YouTube this fall. [THR]
  • Lovato also designed a new activewear line for Fabletics. [Twitter]
  • At the Toronto Raptors’ halftime on Friday, Drake bowed to and embraced Canadian music legend Gord Downie of Tragically Hip, who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. [Twitter]
  • Miley Cyrus, DJ Khaled, Halsey, Backstreet Boys, Fifth Harmony, and Noah Cyrus will play Fontainebleau Miami Beach in June for the iHeartSummer ’17 Weekend festival. [Business Wire]
  • Cyrus will also perform “Malibu” for the first time at the Billboard Music Awards in addition to performances from the Chainsmokers, Sam Hunt, and Halsey. [Instagram]
  • Katy Perry and her micro teacup poodle Nugget will star in a new Citi commercial. [Billboard]
  • Next year’s Grammys will return to New York City after spending the last 14 years in Los Angeles. [CBS]
  • Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini, and Thomas Rhett lead the CMT Awards nominations with four each. [E!]
  • Jennifer Lopez, Diddy, and Luke Bryan were among the celebrities warned by the FTC about not disclosing sponsored social media posts. [Daily Mail]
  • In a tweeted outtake from Lorde’s WSJ interview this week, the pop star’s manager confirmed Melodrama won’t be one of the new windowed releases on Spotify: “Ella won’t want that, she wants everybody to hear it.” (Lorde faved the tweet.) [Twitter]

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