Harry’s House (Sony)
Sometimes you can take an album title literally.
The third album from Harry Styles does seem mostly to take place in and around his house, which – in a break from the usual “I’m famous, I’m hounded, even my home is not a sanctuary” tales in a culture where the price of freedom is eternal vigilance by a pack of paps and hacks – has both an open door and open curtains.
You won’t find paranoia or insecurity here. Nor for that matter, the self-basting obsessiveness of someone who is permanently attended and never refused. Like his easy way with wide pants and loose curls, Styles isn’t pretending that life is Vogue-spread perfect, but nor is he acting as if being rich, beautiful, feted and connected is a curse.
In Harry’s house there are people everywhere, doing and talking and living, some of them the host, many of them guests. They are making breakfast in the kitchen and doing lines in the bathroom, drinking an ’82 red and sitting on the floor being told “Harry you’re no good on your own/Why are you sitting on the floor?/What kind of pills are you on?”.
Maybe at home, maybe on the road, there are those who are on the “come down speed” and those who will “share the last line/Then we drink the wall/Until we wanna talk”. And while some are sleeping off a night, hoping to forget the ill-timed proposition or the romantic failures which ended early so “you never saw my birthmark”, others are thinking about sex and more food-for-sex metaphors, from popcorn to grape juice (which may well be the new watermelon sugar).
There’s even a young friend, a girl brought up by callously indifferent or even deliberately cruel parents, being encouraged to let those opinions and those behaviours slide into the past, replacing them with celebrations of the unique person she is. It’s likely based on a real person, a relative or friend welcomed into his house, but in any case, that her name in the song is Matilda suggests some familiarity with Roald Dahl, or at the very least, Tim Minchin.
Still, it doesn’t pay to go too much further with a lyrical analysis of Harry Styles. If three albums and a Coachella turn have told us anything it is that while his musical maturity quickly accelerated and his live performance is a work in progress, words in the main are closer to functional than thought-through. That said, there is an intriguing couplet in Love Of My Life that keeps alive the promise of better from him: “I’ve been doing everything I can to get to know your creases and your ends/Are they the same?”.
But the open attitude and zest for experience here, the joy in being Harry Styles, that defines his lyrics, his fashion – dare we say it, his persona – is reflected or amplified in the music, written in the main with Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, and the decade from which it draws.
This is an album of freewheeling effortlessness, of sensuality and confidence, of pop and R&B. The default setting is the 1980s, that decade of brighter lights and bigger shoulders serving the newly discovered “aspirationals”, mostly leaving behind the part hopeful/part cynical 1970s stylings of his previous album, Fine Line, for something bolder and more brash.
The album’s opening track, Music For A Sushi Restaurant – a title with a bit of Patrick Bateman smirk – smacks you immediately, seemingly with everything it’s got. It combines Peter Gabriel funk pop, ala Sledgehammer, Phil Collins brass, ala half the ‘80s radio playlists, a conflagration of tricksy vocal layers, the reflected sheen of a hundred Gaultier jackets, and even some Steve Lukather-ish guitar, ala the other half of ‘80s mainstream radio.
It’s busy. Really busy. So busy in fact that it makes the next track, the glossy R&B shifter, Late Night Talking, feel almost light, which is some achievement given Late Night Talking fills every available space with some or other moving part, right down to vocal parps mimicking brass. Shyness is not on the agenda. Reticence is out the door.
That’s how even though Satellite begins as a ballad under grey British skies it becomes a Tears For Fears-style top-down, driving in the parched sunny city cruise, in a vehicle whose surface is so reflective you could admire yourself as you go. And how the boy band R&B of Cinema wears its sexuality as overtly as it does its mimicking of a sparkling Quincy Jones production – the man himself turning up in the next track with a sample from The Brothers Johnson song Jones co-wrote, Ain’t We Funkin’ Now – slipping in a smooth jazz-soul guitar line for good measure.
You can get a suit-tastic bit of British pop soul in Daydreaming that’s lush enough for Silk Sonic to appreciate, or the even smoother Grapejuice whose drums are so in your face they’ve taken up residence behind your cheekbones. And come on, late in the record there’s even some backward vocals!
(Though to be fair, that song, Boyfriends, with its harmonies, acoustic guitar and the slightest suggestion of country in the pop, does suggest that his Fleetwood Mac affections have not altogether disappeared.)
Even when things are less busy, as in the bouncy electro pop single, complete with a Take On Me-lean, As It Was, or the slow-time sensuality of Little Freak, vocal arrangements or doubled and tripled keyboards, keep space occupied. It’s only in the deceptively lush ballad, Matilda, or the low impact rhythm Keep Driving, that Styles’ voice is presented relatively exposed.
Does this suggest a lack of confidence? Hardly. If this time around there are fewer classy pop hooks and less of the elegance which elevated Fine Line, everything about Harry’s House comes with self-assurance and bright cheek that suggest the man and his collaborators know they are going to get you onside one way or another so bigging it up is happening for the sheer bloody fun of it.
Which brings me to one last element of Styles that is hard to explain but remains crucial to his appeal, whether it is to an earlier generation of pop peers, to palpitating fans of all genders and ages, or those who like to think themselves distanced from either.
His ease, whether it’s with himself or being in front of us, is not guileless: he knows what he’s doing and at the same time is happy for us to know too. But it’s not imposing either because it doesn’t feel like he is asking us to fill some hole in him or make some choice out of any form of seduction. Disarmingly, the little bugger’s convincing us that his charms are as natural as his talent, or the other way around, and we’re making that call, not him.
That’s not really fair is it? But as the album title told us right from the start, yes, it is his house.
Harry’s House is out on Friday, May 20.