Harry Styles Balances Giddy Revelry and Sentimental Musings on ‘Harry’s House’
For his third solo album, “Harry’s House,” Harry Styles took inspiration from Japanese pop pioneer Haruomi Hosono, who released a record in 1973 titled “Hosono House.” While Styles staked out a distinctive sonic space with his 2017 self-titled debut, the task of defining oneself as an artist becomes especially daunting when it requires shedding the easily dismissable typecast of a boy band member. As it turns out, the “house” title is an effective descriptor, as it finds Styles carving out a niche for himself, settling in comfortably, and displaying a sound that he can rightfully call his own. The penchant for ‘70s stylings that Styles revealed on his debut album and its followup, 2019’s “Fine Line,” is as much a guiding force here, with his new music ringing like a channeling of ‘70s and ’80s spirit through songwriting and production that sounds at once contemporary and timeless. Styles’ songs are overwhelmingly carefree and celebratory, while unabashedly vulnerable, delivered with an impeccable poise.
“Music For a Sushi Restaurant” begins with Styles letting out a giddy ascending houl that captures the carefree sense of reveling in the moment better than it could have if it contained any words. The utterance erupts into a stacked harmony of scat singing, the first of many “ba pa pa’s” scattered throughout the record. The track is propelled forward by a hefty, funky bassline, and Styles freely lets out Prince-esque falsetto eruptions amid festive brass bursts. Bits of sound candy, like an unticipated distorted guitar fill, are judiciously placed for maximal effect, and the song is an altogether joyous affair, setting the tone for an album that is particularly cohesive, in terms of its mood. “Late Night Talking” follows swimmingly, with lyrics like “If you’re feeling down, I just wanna make you happier, baby” seeming to exude naturally from the sonic backdrop. The fact that Styles’ vocal lines, at one point, nearly lapse into the same melodic snippet that recently entangled Dua Lipa in a lawsuit is testament to Lipa’s defense — that the contested segment is merely a long-familiar phrasing in the narrow soul-funk lexicon.
“Grapejuice” continues the jaunty upbeat stroll, with Styles now taking more liberties in his wayward wanders. For all their simplicity, lyrics like “Yesterday, it finally came, a sunny afternoon / I was on my way to buy some flowers for you” could hardly be better paired with matching music — breezy, leisurely, and winsome. There’s a natural progression into more wistful terrain on lead single “As It Was,” with Styles’ easy revelry giving way to decidedly head-in-the-clouds musings. The refrain, “You know it’s not the same as it was” comes in a deceptively light, upbeat tune that, at moments, echoes the frivolity of A-ha. A line that would normally pass as lackluster relationship fare comes charged with our collective struggle to come to terms with a “new normal.” Styles departs from the funk and disco stylings that have dominated thus far for an indie pop sound that we found a surge of bands adopting about a decade ago, but manages to render it with a fresh ring, further playing up the idea of coming to grips with the toll of time.
“Daylight” trudges along with a playful gait, to a rubbery synth bassline and spectral vocal snippets, over which Styles lays out wispy, breathy vocal harmonies. He sings, “Daylight, you got me cursing the daylight” as if in the reflective, half-smiling haze of a preceding night’s adventures. This continues on “Little Freak,” in which Styles’ frothy, languorous voicings emerge over intricate, but unassuming acoustic guitars in a way that effectively conveys his offhand, affectionate musings. “Matilda” brings an unanticipated mix of light and dark aesthetics, both sonically and lyrically. Over a spacious folk guitar backdrop with pregnant pauses of natural harmonics, Styles sings, “You can throw a party full of everyone you know / And not invite your family ’cause they never showed you love.”
“Cinema” returns to breezy, frolicking fare, with a full indulgence of ‘70s stylings. The tuned percussion and brittle guitar snap and crackle appropriately as Styles sings, “I bring the pop, you pop.” Again, Styles’ lyrics benefit from their knowing effortlessness, with a chorus of “I just think you’re cool / I dig your cinema,” in which the word “just” successfully shrugs off the underlying simplicity, and makes what could be eye-rollingly vapid disarmingly inviting. Meanwhile, the quirky use of “cinema” is consistent with “Harry’s House” and the opener’s “sushi restaurant.” The light grooves give way to ecstatic outpouring on “Daydreaming.” Roller disco stylings grow increasingly festive, with more blissful “ba pa pa” exclamations, brass bursts, and handclaps. Styles hits a new peak with his falsetto wailing near the end, displaying some of the vocal prowess he usually modestly keeps at bay. By the end, his vocals have escalated to full diva levels, culminating in an unprecedented bit of rasp.
On “Keep Driving,” Styles continues to show his range and capacity as a singer. His vocals remain light, but take on a more sonorous tone. The lyrics too strikes deeper, as Styles delivers a litany of lines with the intonation of suggestive questions demanding resolution, with the gratification delayed until the final, modest climactic line of “Should we just keep driving,” itself an actual question, but delivered with the tune and confidence of an answer. “Satellite” brings another example of sparse and sparing lyrics used to advantage, with the music’s open space elegantly filling out the gaps. When a beat drops, the track grows especially buoyant and takes a bold ‘80s turn, with moments of pitched-down vocal processing grounding the production in the present moment. There is a moment in the chorus where the bending notes of his vocals can make one’s hair stand on end, and two-thirds of the way in, a thrust of distorted guitars feels especially gratifying after the length of unvarying smoothness.
“Boyfriends” delves further into the more somber subject matter explored on “Matilda,” as Styles sings to a subject entangled in relationships in which she has taken for granted. The track begins with backwards music that reverses to “Fool, you’re back at it again,” cleverly capturing the idea of a blatant truth wilfully ignored. Without the efforts ever seeming belabored, we are worlds away from the carefree giddiness that made up so much of the album. Finally, “Love Of My Life” brings the work neatly to closure, echoing the intimations of “As It Was.” A spacious soundscape with woozy, detuned vocal harmonies slowly builds to the simple climactic line, “Baby, you were the love of my life.” As it rings, the word “were” could be easily mistaken for “are.” The fact that it’s “were” makes the song far more profound, evoking not necessarily a mere past romance, but the realization of a connection that has existed all along.
“Harry’s House” is an album that stands out for its economy of gesture. In the thirteen unassuming pop songs on display, there is no filler and no ostensible artifice. The lyrics are self-awarely straightforward, and fit to music that carries them gracefully. Whether he’s scat singing and howling in head-spinning revelry or letting out a quiver in a moment of empathic concern, Styles comes across as consistently authentic. Considering the preconceptions that come with a history in the most blatantly manufactured strain of pop music, this is no unremarkable feat. The songs range from purposefully frivolous to subtly sentimental, and form a cohesive body of work that show Styles erecting a structure in which his emerging voice resonates powerfully.
“Harry’s House” releases May 20 on Apple Music.