'Harry Styles', The Album: An MTV News Reaction Roundtable

Our critics meet to discuss Harry’s power ballads, sweet creatures, and new directions

MTV News contributors across two hemispheres gathered this weekend to discuss Harry Styles's self-titled debut album. The verdict: We love it! At least, most of us do. Read on for much more, featuring words from Brodie Lancaster, Sinead Stubbins, Jessica Hopper, Anne T. Donahue, Hilary Hughes, Erica Futterman, Meredith Graves, Charles Aaron, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Lancaster: I’ve been listening to the record all day and am only just now coming to terms with how much of an outlier "Sign of the Times" is. As a single, it suggested so much about the moody, apocalyptic potential of Harry’s first post-1D music, but in the context of these horny journal entries, it seems like such a strange song to peg the record to. It still feels just as volatile and tender as when I first heard it, but in between one song about hanging out in a hallway (of which there are two on Harry Styles) and the bluesy "Carolina," it makes it seem like Harry is curiously experimenting more with genre than he’s done since the first couple of 1D records (neither of which he had much — if any — creative control over). I love that feeling of experimentation I get listening to this record — especially since I heard he cut, like, 50 tracks from the long list of potential inclusions.

Hughes: After an initial listen, I couldn’t stop thinking about that — how “Sign of the Times” was such an interesting choice for Harry’s first single, something we briefly touched on when we gushed about the track in Hits and Misses the week it came out. Harry Styles is made up of 10 singles, and he could’ve led with any of these, so it’s kind of fun to play the What Kind Of Album Will Harry Make? game based on the snap judgment that comes with savoring that first taste. The surprise at “Sign of the Times” being the only sweeping, symphonic ballad is warranted, as that was such a grandiose debut that felt like way too much of a stylistic statement to be a one-and-done deal; if “Sweet Creature” was our first listen, there’d be Niall and Ed Sheeran comparisons batted about like crazy, but we wouldn’t have been shocked if the record was seasoned more heavily with acoustic action.

“Carolina” is the breakaway favorite for me, but it’s also exactly what I expected and hoped for from this album. The mental image of Styles lounging about in John Lennon’s mod reading nook from Help! while soaking in Damon Albarn’s “Song 2” delivery, Robbie Williams’s gravity-defying choruses, and a stack of Rolling Stones LPs is almost too good to be true, and that’s the album’s first impression in a single tableau for me. Styles studied up on some of the best British rock and pop exports of the last century, picked up a couple of tricks while coming up with a few of his own, and got to work. “Sign of the Times,” in retrospect, was a stylistic fake-out that forced us to treat each track on the album like a stand-alone work.

Hopper: The first two tracks really draw a line through the historical grand majesty of U.K. rock — the way “Sign of the Times” conjures a Brian May–less Queen, aiming directly for a MOR Wembley moment, and how “Meet Me in the Hallway” reaches back through Muse, through Coldplay, through The Verve’s “Lucky Man,” through Oasis’s most demure moments, back to Donovan circa Mellow Yellow. That these two tracks are back to back and do the work of taking him out of 1D’s lineage (take that, NSYNC) and rerouting the convo from “Is he the Timberlake?” to “He Is An Artist” seems just as purposeful as any other move he has ever made.

Donahue: I was so excited when I heard “Sign of the Times”! Like Jessica said, it sounded so Queen and so Wembley and so sweeping and I was very high on the idea that he was going to deliver unto us a Robbie Williams/Bowie/George Michael–esque extravaganza. But then “Carolina” begins right after and the majesty just ... ends. And that’s not to say “Carolina” isn’t a good song, but it reminded me of the way “Never Enough” follows the ballad “Long Way Down” on Made in the A.M. You’re just kind of shoved into this bucket of cold water after getting very comfy and setting up this very distinctive narrative to set such emotional songs to. Leading with “Sign of the Times” would be like if Adele led with “Hello” and then her entire album was Rita Ora songs. And there is nothing wrong with either, but I was emotionally prepared for something very specific. At least upon first listen.

Aaron: As with so many male artists over the history of recorded pop-rock music — in whom I have no deep, personal investment whatsoever — Harry Styles is most compelling to me when submitting himself to the soul-baring simulation of the Power Ballad. Unless I’m forced to listen more intensely, on the radio or some other public platform, to the artist’s mid- or up-tempo exercises, I don’t really care. So I appreciate that Harry got straight to the cathartic point with his solo debut, and even though “Sign of the Times” is no less transparently derivative than “Sweet Creature” or “Two Ghosts” or “Carolina,” it’s just a more ... well ... powerful super-structure for our lad’s sweet-spirited, genuine joy in making emotional, accessible music for teens who see adulthood lurking sketchily behind a bush just past the soccer field. The other songs here are pleasant diversions, but they’re more geared toward these kids a year or two from now, when they’re trying to find a job or muddle through some further education program. “Sign of the Times,” though, tenderly clutches its listeners’ nervously beating hearts, as if to say, “The world is a scary fucking place and I’m Harry Styles and I’m here to say I’m scared too, but it’s going to be OK and one day you, too, will know about The Kinks and Elton John and The Strokes and many other bands that will make the scary world more bearable.”

Futterman: When I was listening to it the first go-around, I was thinking about how much pressure there is for an album like this — what it means to define yourself as an individual when you were formerly part of a group, especially when you’re trying to make a play for longevity. And it seems like Styles is making a play for longevity here, not just capitalizing on sounds du jour. What I’m also really interested in is Harry’s positioning of himself — willingly or not — as the gateway for a lot of his fans to be introduced to his influences. I vividly remember seeing my faves, Hanson, cover their faves while on tour circa 2000 and immediately going home and digging into those catalogues.

Stubbins: I agree that this album feels like a play for longevity, because it doesn’t have all the panicked urgency to distance itself from 1D like Zayn’s “I Have So Much Crazy Sex!!” debut did. Harry Styles didn’t hate being in a boy band! And I think that makes all the difference. I’ve listened to the record a couple of times now, and what stands out to me is that none of it seems forced. Harry doesn’t seem to be asserting a new identity out of insecurity that he’s never been seen as a single entity, just fleshing out his existing identity by allowing us to observe the smoky pub jukebox music that has influenced him. I think "From the Dining Table" shows that there are melancholy depths to Harry Styles that haven’t even been tapped yet (and here’s hoping for more casual masturbation references).

For me, too, Harry Styles sounds like a fan letter to U.K. rock throughout the ages. This album is the most English thing since Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart’s last selfie, or the Dowager Countess saying something sassy (possibly all of these things have happened in a single episode of Graham Norton). While listening to the whole album, I couldn’t get the image of Harry Styles lazily flying through the freezing Scottish air over rolling green hills out of my head. If music has taught me anything, it’s that British pop stars love to be chilly in nature. (Like, a lot).

Lancaster: You’re so on the money with that, Sinead. Harry’s absence of shame or embarrassment about the music he made in 1D is why this record doesn’t feel desperate to appear grown-up in the way Zayn’s did for me. There’s a lack of artifice because while he’s experimenting, he’s doing it in a comfort zone. Maybe it speaks to Harry’s influence in One Direction’s shift toward nostalgic rock that his solo record sounds like it could be an epilogue to Made in the A.M. or Four, whereas Zayn went the broody, weed-fueled Weeknd route; Louis made that one banger with Steve Aoki; and the tiny taste of Liam’s first single reeks of Bieber's faux-edginess in his Calvin Klein undies phase. Niall and Harry shared similar ’70s rock and folk influences when they were writing for the band, so it makes sense that their solo work doesn’t feel like a jarring, surprising departure. A track like Niall’s "Slow Hands" could transition seamlessly from 1D’s "Temporary Fix," just as Harry’s "Carolina" is like a belated, gritty sequel to "Olivia."

Hopper: It’s a comfort record, absolutely, and seems authentic as can be — and yet in that way it confounds all expectations. Like, “Sweet Creature” sounds like someone wanting the intimacy and quiet sensuality of Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker — and those are a strain of grown-up that’s a world away from all we have known of Harry. This sort of setting is a great use of his voice. Plenty of folks make MOR balladry like this, and much of it is insufferable, but this is an album of singles that feels like it was created with some intent and purpose, rather than simply to sell a serious revision of Harry.

Vozick-Levinson: I didn't think I was underrating Harry before — I always looked sideways at the critics who didn't get his old band — but I have to admit I never expected this. The persona he gives us here feels so complete and distinct, developing hints dropped on 1D album cuts into a fully realized character you want to meet in the hallway and ask for a hit of whatever he's on. He's strung out on the 20th-century rock canon, mainly, as you've all noted — madly in love with The Beatles and The Stones, ready to make some noise in a hotel room but even more stoked to get bittersweet and acoustic afterward. And while he clearly wants his solo debut to be a major statement, he's also smart enough not to get lost in the ego traps that snare some other male pop stars on their way there. It's the little details that make these songs work: I like how he ends the refrain of "From the Dining Table" with a half-sighed "by the way," trying to sound casual but only making it clearer how hurt he is. And I love it when he lists "she's got a book for every situation!" as one of his crush's top three most alluring qualities on "Carolina." There's something so charming to me about how giddy he is to be hanging out with someone more well-read than he is (that's how I hear that line, at least), and it speaks to the album's underlying generosity.

Lancaster: The idea of Harry reaching for a new legitimacy — whether successfully or not — is one I’m really interested in exploring at the moment. I’ve seen a handful of conversations online that basically amount to “he’s got a guitar now, he’s trying to be something more real than One Direction let him be.” I find that conversation so dull and meaningless. It aligns with a rockist mentality that men writing their own music and playing their own instruments is somehow more fulfilling or valid than a catchy pop hook or beat you can dance to.

The most wonderful thing about this record, I think, is that it’s not only in keeping with Harry’s “old stuff," but that it is very likely the space he’ll continue to work in for a long time. I can’t imagine him noticing Top 40 trends and peppering them into his work on the next record, or clutching for some new and different sound to appeal to a more quote, unquote legitimate audience.

Harry has always defied trends, whether through his personal style — wearing floral suits where his bandmates wore classic black or jeans and t-shirts — or, now, by backing the passion and dedication of the teen-girl fan base where, historically, newly solo ex–boy banders were rabid about distancing themselves from that audience in favor of new, older listeners.

Even for all the trendy nostalgia in this record, he also shrugged off his producer’s suggestion to use outdated technology to make it; on the Rolling Stone podcast, Cameron Crowe said Harry was adamant about using the most up-to-date tools today, just as his heroes did in the ’60s and ’70s, rather that backpedaling into analog for analog's sake. The idea that he’s somehow more “real” now that he’s nervously plucking a guitar (one he’s traveled with for, like, five years) is misguided.

Donahue: He’s really created a tapestry of self, which I think is what was so jarring about comparing “Sign of the Times” to everything else: I think you — or maybe it’s just me — inherently want to listen to an artist’s solo debut and “get” them. Like the way Brodie explains how Zayn very overtly distinguished himself as a particular brand of artist, or the way you know exactly what you’ll get on a Drake mixtape. But Harry’s album is almost the musical equivalent of, “Hey, come see my room!” when you make a new friend in high school or college. Like, “Come see all the things I like! Look at my records! Do you like my posters? Look at this sick lamp!” And to that end, Harry Styles is a very bold and brave declaration: He’s not hiding what he likes or who he is or what he wants us to know about him. He loves arena rock and he loves classic rock and Britpop and he likes ’00s-era British indie. He’s not a snob, and while I think we all already knew that, it's exciting to see that inclusive approach applied to his solo star cotillion.

Also, “Kiwi” reminds me so much of early Arctic Monkeys it’s bananas. And “Woman” reminds me so much of McCartney — with or without Wings, TBD. But neither feels like Harry’s playing copycat. Ultimately, all of these songs just really allude to his appreciation of the artists he loves without ripping them off. It’s all very sincere, and I think that’s why I like this album so much.

Graves: My entire sense of Harry Styles is based on (1) tweets from Maria Sherman and Brittany Spanos, and (2) the kids who persist in writing “Larry” under every post on the MTV News Instagram account. I’m a lifestyle poptimist, but I skew C86, which explains how I’ve dodged 1D for this long. Really, Harry and I are meeting for the first time with this record — and it feels like he took me on a blind date to karaoke, where he sang a bunch of songs that I could swear I’ve heard before but can’t quite place. It’s near-music, style over substance, a sonic makeover montage. Try everything on, see what fits: Sometimes there’s an overlap between Adele and early Of Montreal, sometimes it’s Fleet Foxes, sometimes, as with “Only Angel,” it sounds like Tia Carrere’s band in Wayne’s World. This is the album that happens at the place where a young man’s earnest musical aspirations collide with the limited imagination of a studio band in service to a timely debut. It’s the sound of best intentions, checked boxes, audio soylent; meant for sustenance, it will taste (or sound) just fine so long as you don’t forget its intended purpose isn’t delivering pleasure, only providing foundational nutrients. If you love this but purport to abhor Ed Sheeran, I have some questions for you ...

Donahue: Is this where I admit I don’t hate “Galway Girl”?

Willis-Abdurraqib: Some mornings, I watch the birds that hover over the dumpster outside of my apartment. They are all casual hunters, at best. For a solid week, there was a smaller bird that seemed to be getting pushed out of the feasting circle, left only with whatever scraps descended from the torn bags. One day, toward the end of the week, the smaller bird circled with all of the other birds and waited for one of its peers to fill its beak with a sizable piece of bread. The smaller bird, somehow with both patience and urgency, moved quickly and snatched the bread from the larger bird and flew away.

To be honest, these might not have all been the same birds. But what I’m mostly saying is that I love to consider the moment of intention: What something is until it decides it isn’t. First an afterthought, and then a hunter. Harry Styles is interesting to me because my entry point is that of someone who only had a passing interest in One Direction. Like so many people here, I’m a pop nerd, but by the time 1D had its heyday, I had already lived through two eras of boy bands, and I think that can breed a lot of distance and cynicism. Still, the 1D songs I heard didn’t inspire a lot of excitement in me (with the exception of a handful of songs on Four). Maybe the blessing in this is that I don’t find myself bogged down with the “take Harry Styles seriously” narrative. It would seem, just on its face, that Styles himself has made the decision that he was going to become something different than what he was. I’m only stunned by how simple the transition seems for him, when it seemed so much more awkward for Zayn.

I love “Sweet Creature,” even though I’m a Very Intense acoustic ballad skeptic. I love the hard-driving howl of “Kiwi,” even when it leans into the cheesier retro-rock chorus. I love the retro feel of opening with a song like “Meet Me in the Hallway,” complete with a softly mumbled count-in. Harry Styles, through this whole album, is the bird with the stolen bread in his beak, racing toward an endless sky, full of possibility.

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