Since shedding his boyband past for a bit of Stereophonics on “Sign of the Times” in 2017, Harry Styles has expanded the horizons of his pop fan base with two sophisticated albums. He dabbled in psych pop, future funk, indie rock, classic folk and even a touch of prog. In 2019, he addressed his split from Victoria’s Secret model Camille Rowe on Thin line channeling the essence of Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac into very modern songs of sex and heartbreak.
As the tabloids swirl over the possibility of an imminent proposal to new girlfriend Olivia Wilde, however, the third album Harry’s house does not yet describe pop star Dundatine’s lifestyle of honeymoons in St Tropez and a separate limo for the au pair. It exists in the chaotic, self-destructing outback between cases, where heartbreak and regret fight the flow of new romance, blurry nights and addictions take root. “Answer the phone, Harry, you’re no good on your own,” debut single “As it Was”, “What kind of pills do you take?”
Turns out Prince pills. Like Harry’s house opens the doors to his party garage, Styles navigates this confusing emotional territory with shuffle funk and future soulful panache worthy of the Purple One itself, while keeping an eye on the retro-modernist appeal of Silk Sonic and The weekend. Opens “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”, in which Styles memorably compares the object of his affections to a teppanyaki grill (“Green eyes, fried rice, I could cook you an egg”), would be much better suited to a particularly bouncy Latin soul food joint, for example. Meanwhile, the disco angst of “Late Night Talking” emerges as a Samaritan hotline run by Bruno Mars.
Styles did not rise – critically, creatively and commercially – above his former One Direction bandmates, booked 10 nights at Madison Square Garden and made a Justin Timberlike leap towards respecting mature artists by looking for safe mainstream options, of course. Harry’s house contains far more interesting and uniquely appointed quarters than those rowdy reception halls. “As it Was” itself is what would have happened if The Strokes had written “Take On Me” about prescription drug abuse. “Grapefruit,” “Little Freak” and “Daylight” find Styles’ longtime collaborator Kid Harpoon bringing his buzz and narcotic alt-pop crackle to a handful of brilliant soul and R&B melodies. And “Matilda” is subtle, sensitive Mitchell-style writing, a touching ode to an unloved child struggling to connect with the adult world.
A few light pop cocktail numbers in “Cinema” and “Daydreaming” threaten to kill the thrill of the record, until “Keep Driving” arrives in a blur of Hollywood shutter clicks. “Cocaine, side-boob, a joker with a sea view,” Styles sings, as snapshots of LA life tumble around a shimmering track of space pop.
It was this ability to transcend expectations that we would apply to less ex-boyband talent that helped Styles twist and stray from his path to solo acclaim.Harry’s house ends with a trio of minor masterclasses. “Satellite” turns into another lounge bar standard until, in the last minute, someone spikes his Martini with a dose of whatever MGMT is on. “Boyfriends” is beautiful multi-harmony acoustic folk that fulfills the teenage panic dream that any of One Direction could want to sound like the first Gerry Rafferty. And rather than ending with a schmaltz-esque ballad, the muted electronica of “Love of My Life” suggests that Harry’s future ambitions may include a collaboration with Bon Iver.
After going all the way around, Harry’s house looks more like an Airbnb store designed in a musical theme through the ages; there’s somewhere here for everyone to rest their heads. Su casa, nuestra casa.