Harry Styles is one of the most fascinating figures in pop music at the moment.
He is a walking contradiction, his modern and traditional sensibilities constantly clashing. Styles is a Gen Z superstar, at a time when the superstar model is approaching extinction. His music is draped in ’70s California FM pop-rock, while he himself dresses outside of the gender binary, wearing androgyny with pride. He tops the charts with songs that eschews current Top 40 trends. Styles is a natural-born stage performer, but is also successfully branching out into Hollywood. (He stars in two buzzy titles this year alone: Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman.) He feels both accessible and mysterious.
All of this makes his third album Harry’s House such an intriguing prospect. Following the breakout success of 2019’s Fine Line, this record suggests a peek behind Styles’ sequined curtain. Written during the pandemic, Harry’s House poses some tantalizing questions about the enigmatic young man. What’s going on beneath the perfectly-coiffed hair and tattoos? How has the success he attained with Fine Line changed him? And what’s the deal with director Olivia Wilde, his reported new girlfriend?
To a degree, Harry’s House answers all of these questions. The answers ultimately add up to, “Harry’s in love, and he’s kind of a hot mess over it.” The album is a rollercoaster of emotions and states of mind, presumably focused on a person who knocked Styles’ world off its axis. It sounds absurd given who he is, but the emotional maelstrom registers. He is nakedly lustful on songs like album opener “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” and “Cinema,” and then drowning in anxious despair on the sparkling lead single “As It Was.” On “Satellite,” he turns his figurative spinning out of control into a star-gazing metaphor, imagining himself as a spacebound savior to his lonely ex. The sentiment reeks of desperation and a slight whiff of delusion. It’s also very compelling.
Styles does an excellent job dressing up his stark vulnerabilities and slightly unhinged musings in gauzy yet sunny pop productions. He largely sticks with the ’70s, Fleetwood Mac-favoring sound he’s embraced since his debut, a brave rejection of the Top 40 flavors of the moment. However, he expands his musical palette in some surprising ways. “Music For a Sushi Restaurant” explodes into a funkified chorus that betrays and compliments its mellow verses. “Daylight” borrows doo-wop vocal stylings (think An Innocent Man-era Billy Joel) to express his frustrations over a long-distance relationship. “Daydreaming,” relatively light from a lyrical standpoint, is distinct because its passing resemblance to heyday Motown.
The musical experiments on Harry’s House largely work, with no outright duds across the thirteen tracks. (“Keep Driving” comes closest to being filler.) However, Styles is most comfortable in that folksy pop-rock pocket, with funky twists here and there. On album highlight “Cinema,” he rides that absolutely-killer bassline with easy confidence, an interesting contrast to the timidity lurking between the lines of the lyric sheet. “Late Night Talking” is more assertive, but his delivery is so damn charming. Both songs are spiritual relatives to his biggest hit “Watermelon Sugar,” and feel like inevitable, and inevitably successful, singles.
Styles does offer up a break from the inner turmoil of his romantic relationship. He turns his pen outward for “Matilda,” dedicated to someone struggling with a toxic family. With just an acoustic guitar and an occasional piano accompaniment, it’s the most sparse song on the album. It’s also the most affecting, with Styles tenderly absolving his friend of her guilt and reaffirming her need for stability and safety. “Matilda,” with its quiet grace and genuine mental health themes, is the most important and impactful record Styles has written so far.
Styles has grown significantly as a musician and a songwriter, even just in the last two years, but he hasn’t quite cracked it as a vocalist yet. He is a much better singer than his songs allow him to show. (I was blown away listening to his performance of “Falling” at the BRITs.) Sadly, that trend continues with Harry’s House. There are some lovely vocal moments and great variety, but he plays it safer than he should. It’s the one area on the album where he holds back. It doesn’t detract from the experience, but I wish he let loose vocally as much as he does lyrically and musically.
If Harry’s House is an invitation into the Harry Styles’ headspace, what you get walking through the door is a stylish, disheveled house that screams loudly and unconvincingly, “This is fine.” It’s a relatable state of mind to everyone adjusting to the new, COVID-era normal. His struggles in this particular moment, what it means for him emotionally and romantically, make for a compelling and enjoyable listen. He shows us a lot on this album, but the mysteries and contradictions still remain.
In fact, he’s even more fascinating, as the focus shifts to what he’ll reveal, or hide, next.