At 28, Harry Styles has now been doing this long enough that he’s starting to compare himself to the younger set of pop stars. In a deep-diving interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, the former One Directioner spoke about observing Billie Eilish when she first came up and thinking, “I’m not that young anymore.” (And he must have only been in his mid-20s when he thought that!) “For a while it was, how do you play that game of remaining exciting?”
Regardless of visibility and / or success – not the same thing, which Styles quotes Michaela Coel as saying in an acceptance speech – everyone has moments where we compare our achievements and life paths to others’. It’s part of the human condition and part of maturing into adulthood. (Though god knows not all adults get there.) As he enters a new chapter of his solo career with his third album, Harry’s HouseStyles demonstrates his keen interest in personal and professional growth while simultaneously engaging in typically youthful pursuits like living for today, driving around, and getting high on various substances. Harry’s House is a delightful snapshot of that late-20s liminal state. Adding to this metamorphosis: Our boy is head over heels in love with a woman he really, really admires.
Styles, as mentioned at the start, began his entertainment career quite early, auditioning for The X Factor in 2010 and being scooped up by Simon Cowell to form One Direction with Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik. One Direction ultimately split in 2016, one year after Malik left and launched a solo career. All of the bestselling boyband’s members have launched solo careers to varying degrees of success, but Styles’ is by far the most explosive, earning him two Brit Awards, a Grammy, an Ivor Novello Award, and an American Music Award. In his post-1D life, Styles has also become something of a creative muse for film directors: Christopher Nolan said he liked Styles’ “old-fashioned face” and gave him a supporting role in 2017’s historical war drama Dunkirk. In September, he’ll star in the mid-century mystery flick Do not Worry Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde, who also happens to be dating Styles. (They rarely talk about their relationship publicly, but they were spotted holding hands in January 2021 and Wilde has been seen at a number of Styles’ live shows. “Cinema” lyrics like “I bring the pop the the cinema / You pop” speak for themselves.)
As he graduated from One Direction, the pressure had to be on Styles to define himself as a solo artist, particularly since Malik technically beat him to the punch. But for anyone who has seen One Direction live – I did in 2013 – you will already be aware that the star power clearly, unequivocally, belongs to Styles. It’s an ineffable quality, as all five guys were impossibly talented and complemented each other’s abilities in ways that would make any major label executive’s mouth water. But Styles had (and still has) an enigmatic presence that just screams “FAMOUS.”
That star power has only amplified over the past five years and three albums with Styles crafting a “lead with kindness” ethos – he literally titled a song “Treat People With Kindness” on 2019’s Fine Line. Unlike another (much older) entertainer who waxes on about decency, Styles’ graciousness appears genuine: He holds babies. He is all about COVID safety protocols. He badmouths shitty boyfriends. Speaking of mouths, he has a Grammy-winning single about the female orgasm. He’s embraced therapy. He does not believe in labels around sexuality and happily wears dresses on tour and on the cover of Vogue. Yes, Styles is not only mindful but open-minded. He’s always been favorably compared to Mick Jagger – a comparison Jagger rejected in a recent interview, declaring, “he just has a superficial resemblance to my younger self, which is fine.” Fair enough, because unlike the Rolling Stones frontman, a parade of groupies clustering his dressing room would be extremely off-brand for Styles. (That could still happen for all I know – but if it does, it would not be published.)
Moving into his Harry’s House era, Styles sounds looser and more creatively pliable than ever. He is still a student of classic rock and bombastic ’70s pop, as seen on his 2017 self-titled debut and 2019’s Fine Linebut Harry’s House sounds less like he is renting an Elton John-themed AirBnB and more like he made an all-cash offer on his very own pad. The irony, of course, is that Harry’s House – which many assumed was a reference to his pal Joni Mitchell’s song “Harry’s House / Centerpiece” off 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawnsbut which Styles says is a nod to Haruomi Hosono’s 1973 debut Hosono House – is not meant to be taken literally.
“As I started making the album, I realized it was not about the geographical location,” Styles recently explained to Zane Lowe. “It’s much more of an internal thing. When I took that title, put it to the songs we were making, it felt like it took on this whole new meaning and it was about, imagine it’s a day in my house. What do I go through? A day in my mind, what do I go through in my house? I’m playing fun music. I’m playing sad music. I’m playing this, I’m playing that. Feeling stuff. Kind of like a day in the life. ”
This philosophy kind of lends itself to the “write music for yourself” secret sauce I was talking about in last week’s column, and it works to Styles’ advantage. Combine that with a lockdown-enforced time off from touring and a bit of therapy, Styles learns how to stop “emotional coasting” and really look inward, perhaps for the first time in his life. Harry’s Houseas a result, is richly textured, deliciously sensual, pulls from multiple genres without sounding derivative, and offers a more vivid peek into Styles’ psyche than we’ve gotten before.
By now, if you’ve read other reviews, you’ll know about the multiple references to food on Harry’s House, which its author likes to use in relation to love and sex. (I’m reminded of that scene in Animal House where Otter propositions an attractive older woman, “I think vegetables can be very sensuous, don’t you?”) On the funky fresh, horn-filled album opener “Music For A Sushi Restaurant,” Styles juxtaposes sexual lust with tasty bites: “Green eyes , fried rice / I could cook an egg on you / Late night, game time / Coffee on the stove yeah / You’re sweet ice cream. ” He even scats!
Like Charlie Puth, Styles is hungiesfilling his House with red wine (“Grapejuice”), decadent breakfast foods (“Maple syrup, coffee, pancakes for two / Hash brown, egg yolk” on “Keep Driving”), more red wine and “a ginger ale” on “Little Freak, ”And“ tea and toast ”on“ Matilda. ” How very Nine And A Half Weeks of Harry, who seeks – and achieves – a sumptuous multi-sensory experience on his third outing.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to Harry’s House is its ability to feel like a sprawling McMansion and a cozy bungalow all at once. “Late Night Talking” is a sprightly indie-pop jaunt that also dips into Prince-like tones and vibes. Chronicling a relationship’s dopamine-packed early days, Styles marvels at how one person can inspire so much devotion: “Now you’re in my life / I can not get you off my mind / I’ve never been a fan of change / But I’d follow you to any place / If it’s Hollywood or Bishopsgate, I’m coming too. ” Lead single and viral TikTok hit “As It Was,” which features a voice memo from Styles’ goddaughter Ruby Winston (the child of Late Late Show and Grammys producer Ben Winston), is a prime example of the album’s expansiveness and warmth, with Styles addressing himself in the first person over flourishing synths. (“Answer the phone / ‘Harry, you’re no good alone / Why are you sitting at home on the floor? / What kind of pills are you on?’”)
Speaking of being no good alone, hungry eyes get a closer look at Styles’ relationship with Wilde on the gently grooving “Cinema,” where the singer sounds unabashedly into (and admiring of) his mega-talented girlfriend and might be wondering if he’s maybe a little out of his depth. (“I just think you’re cool / I dig your cinema / Do you think I’m cool too? / Or am I too into you?”) It’s actually pretty cute to hear Styles, a fantasy figure for so many, singing the equivalent of a “Do you like me? Check yes, no, or maybe ”note.
Elsewhere, Styles places us in the soothing setting of an outdoor garden on “Grapejuice,” which has a vinyl crackle and lyrics about blanketing anxious moments with a lovely bottle of wine. One gets the impression that these calming bucolic moments mirror a man approaching 30 and might opt for a nice vintage than the more party-ready nose-candy. But he has not grown up that much, as evidenced on “Daylight,” which traces a turbulent romance where his kitchen becomes a venue for cocaine use and horoscope readings.
Musically, Harry’s House is the most genre-rich he’s ever done. The toned-down, harmony-driven “Little Freak” sounds inspired by ’10s indie folk a la Fleet Foxes. The acoustic-and-keys “Matilda” is a quietly ruminative soft-pop ballad (featuring cello by Dev Hynes). “Music For A Sushi Restaurant,” “Late Night Talking,” “Daylight,” and “As It Was” take funk-rock cues from Prince and early ’80s adult contemporary legends like Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Roxy Music with slick sprinkles of contemporary studio sparkle, courtesy of Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, who helped out on Styles’ 2017 debut. Styles also brings in John Mayer on “Cinema” and “Daydreaming,” and the modernized Laurel Canyon folk tune “Boyfriends” – already an Angel Olsen favorite – features a co-write from Adele’s secret weapon Tobias Jesso Jr. and tender guitar strums from Ben Harper.
Some critics have argued that Harry’s House contains more flash than substance. That’s not an unfair assessment – for all its sensuality and odes to Olivia Wilde, Harry’s House can at points fall back on vague, Instagram-y caption language. Still, Styles’ overall upward trajectory from album to album suggests that the pop idol will continue to share more of himself in specifics as time unfolds.
In any case, I’m reminded of one of the most oft-repeated ideas for effortless-seeming home decor: Stay away from the matchy-matchy furniture sets that your parents no doubt got as wedding gifts. Today, design experts encourage differently colored pieces from multiple eras, and I think that is the sonic equivalent of what Styles has done with Harry’s House (the irony being that so much of the album is obsessed with Reagan-era soft-rock). Styles’ longstanding taste for classic-pop / rock eras still rules the day, but three albums in, the former One Directioner has really come into its own as a tastemaker with a succinct – though still evolving – sound and vision. Harry’s House is a very, very, very fine house.