Zayn Demonstrates Multi-Personality Pop on ‘Icarus Falls’

Zayn arose from One Direction fame, and is grappling with the consequences. Boy band stardom sets up expectations that are equal parts fanatical glorification and seething dismissal. Zayn embarked on a solo career with 2015’s “Mind of Mine,” and has been developing a voice of his own, albeit one still rather murky overall. His latest album, “Icarus Falls,” is an ambitious undertaking, just short of an hour and half in running time, which finds him playing something of a pop caricature, but also showcasing an impressive artistic range.  

Opener “Let Me” is exactly what you would expect from a former boy band member. Zayn affects some type of baby voice that sounds as if he’s doing Zoolander’s “Blue Steel,” and immediately, it’s clear that this is an album for only the most saintly nonjudgmental. With a refrain of “Baby, let me be your man / So I can love you,” this could hardly be more generic, and lyrically, it’s not too different from an early Beatles tune, although that makes the grating reality only more pressing – that the standard of pop songwriting has really gone down. There is hardly anything here. On “Natural,” Zayn sounds, at moments, uncannily like Michael Jackson – or better yet, Mr. Jefferson, as it’s the most cartoonish imagination of said figure. Then, “Back To Life” comes out of the blue, and is a breath of fresh air. Zayn abandons the baby voice, and seems to free himself up, sounding a bit like The Weeknd at times, and suddenly seeming like a real singer. Zayn ends up really impressing, in terms of sheer versatility. One might mistake the album for a compilation, as he taps into different voices so convincingly. “Imprint” is an especially compelling moment, with a vaguely Eastern backdrop complementing his fluttering falsetto. “Stand Still” picks up on the emergent mood, and falls into a groove that comes across as a defining moment, as Zayn, all of a sudden, no longer sounds like boy band fodder, more like an R&B guy with rose-tinted glasses.  

Zayn seems to free up over the course of the album, and come “Tonight,” he’s put on a whole new lustre. Every successive track seems to showcase a new level of swag, and at the point of “Flight Of the Stars,” it’s codeine-soaked, dim-lit nightclub fare. “If I Got You” sounds like a pop song that’s been hinting itself over the past few years, making an impression on countless radio hits, but never achieving full realization until now. In other words, it’s Zayn really owning a trend. “There You Are” finds him ostensibly balancing both worlds, as the song starts with him in easy, fluid, soulful mode, and then suddenly gets hijacked, with a mega-pop, ultra sheened, sweeping chorus that seems as if it were written as satire. “I Don’t Mind” finds Zayn taking on the lower register, and taking on a whole new persona – for the first few bars at least. At this point, the number of voices he’s put on invites speculation, as to how and why he split into such a multiplitude of forms. Mind you, this is purely speculative, but Zayn’s being an Englishman of Pakistani heritage might have something to do with it. When you’re born into a family with different accents, you sometimes end up putting an excess of effort into fitting in to your surroundings, to the extent that you might play with different pronunciations during your journey, and ultimately end up with a remarkably wider range of linguistic character than your peers. And if you’re a singer, this gets naturally amplified. Too many singers are preoccupied with centering on a distinctive “voice,” and sticking to it, because of mere convention and the dictates of popular taste, whereas, in many ways, the ability to sing in many voices is more impressive, both in terms of showmanship and in relatability. And on this note, you’ve got to hand it to Zayn.

“Icarus Interlude” features the line “I’m in the right place at the right time,” which seems to betray a certain awareness, or suspicion, of the ephemeral nature of fame. In “24 Hour Party People,” an essential film for enthusiasts of a particular subculture, Steeve Coogan open with a bafoonish handgliding scene that ended in a crash, and explained the significance of the demonstration by saying, “Icarus,” and adding that if you didn’t understand, you should probably read more. Spoiler alert, our man Icarus flew too close to the sun, and then fell. Zayn’s talk of being in the right place now, considering the album’s title, implies an impending downfall – and the very sentiment is so far removed from the assumedly vapid few opening songs of this record that Zayn seems to have somehow transcended, taking on an unanticipated gravity.

“Good Guy” samples Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang,” and makes a shining example of art benefiting from removal from context. The song sounds good enough as is, but fans of the sampled tune are likely to experience severe discomfort, disillusionment, and discontent. If only artists could just sense the unspoken obligation that comes with the indulgence of sampling, and had the decency to see it to end. “You Wish You Knew” finds Zayn delving into more, say, “singer-songwriter” fare, with acoustic guitar and all, but still an R&B vibe. “Sour Diesel” revives the corniness that the album promised, with the brilliant subject of likening a girl to a strain of weed. Yes, you love that chick, and you love that weed, and this guy has put the two together. Right. Let’s hear it for pop music. Zayn commits further outrage on “Satisfaction,” which appropriates The Stones’ main lyric in a song so underwhelming that one just has to gawk at the audacity. “Scripted” finds Zayn indulging in melismatic adlibs, and pulling it off nicely. “Entertainer” taps into a more Carribean sound, a very South London aesthetic, but also coming across as an imitation of certain American pop trends, executed in a way that doesn’t exactly convince. “All That” continues in this vein, sounding very distinctly London, but with Zayn now sounding more in his element, and inhabiting a space somewhere between John Legend and garage (pronounced in the British way.)

“Good Years” crosses genres a bit, a general, sweeping number, seemingly designed for American Idol – and yes, “American” Idol, in spite of Zain’s Englishness. It’s with that sonic aesthetic in mind, and it succeeds in what it sets out for. “Fresh Air” recalls The Weeknd in his poppiest mode – vocally, at least. The instrumental actually seems like a reiteration of Zain’s Icarus idea. Things suddenly shift gears on “Rainberry,” which dives into good-times seventies-styled, funky fare. It’s a fetching tune, and at this point, you have to nod at Zayn for just his ambition. This is an album of considerable scope and scale. “Insomnia” is an act of pop perfection, immediately infectious, and in a less laughably bland way than the beginning few tracks. The illustrious Nicki Minaj shows up on “No Candle No Light,” and sounds as if she’s gotten all the heat off her chest, uncharacteristically composed and calm. On “Fingers,” Zayn does the Auto-tune thing, and sounds perfectly in his element, somehow making a winsome track out of gruesomely belabored equipment. “Too Much” follows seamlessly, and features none other than Timbaland, but doesn’t quite sound like it would. None of Timbaland’s distinctive features are present – no grit, no edge. It sounds a bit like Eiffel 65 urbanized.

What you have, as a whole, is a rather befuddling collection of songs, inasmuch as it defies exact classification, while still heralding the most blatant type of pop appeal. Zayn stands out, as a singer, for his versatility, and he makes an impressive display, with how effortlessly he’s able to shift gears, and take on new forms. On the other hand, certain parts of the album will be both revolting and laughable to all except a certain subset of teenage girls that get off on the idea of fitting a ludicrous stereotype of teenage girls. At least Zayn is hitting his target market. And in the process, he does show a notable artistry and musical adventurousness.  

Icarus Falls” is available Dec. 14 on Apple Music.