Harry Styles Is Still a Dreamy Cipher on His Third LP, ‘Harry’s House’
On “Harry’s House,” the third solo album from the colossally charismatic former member of the British boy band One Direction, 28-year-old Harry Styles often sings from a perspective that is a combination of a prematurely wise elder, a personal cheerleader and a pro bono therapist.
“You can throw a party full of everyone you know and not invite your family, ’cause they never showed you love,” he sings on the acoustic ballad “Matilda,” a tender character study addressing a woman who carries the burden of past traumas — at least until the narrator gives her permission to lay them down. “Boyfriends,” he croons later on a song of the same name, “They take you for granted, they don’t know that they’re just misunderstanding you.” That song, which features some agile fingerpicking by the singer-songwriter Ben Harper, regards its male specimen from a bemused distance, as if it is a category of mere mortal from which someone as empathic as Styles is automatically exempt.
While “Harry’s House” is more sonically adventurous and eclectically influenced than most of the music Styles made with One Direction — the title itself is an obscure nod to the Japanese singer-songwriter Haruomi Hosono’s 1973 album “Hosono House” — it shares his former group’s sense of generosity and devotion to the female subject and, by extension, listener. As the journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany writes in her forthcoming and highly entertaining book “Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It,” One Direction was “a group of boys whose commercial proposition is that they would never hurt you.”
When Styles — who was active in 1D from age 16 to 24 — branched out on his own, his most successful songs paid more mature but still unselfish tribute to women. The beachy hit “Watermelon Sugar,” from his 2019 album “Fine Line,” was a winkingly euphemistic but sensually serious ode to giving female pleasure. Another swoony highlight from that record was called, even more succinctly, “Adore You.”
Such devotion to the feminine certainly makes Styles’s music go down smoother than the many pop songs pockmarked with outright misogyny. But this other-oriented perspective has also made Styles himself feel, on his records, like something of a cipher. This problem was less apparent on the superior “Fine Line,” which partially chronicled a breakup and allowed space for Styles to wallow, transgress and occasionally get a revealing jab in at his ex’s new partner (“Does he take you walking round his parents’ gallery?”). Despite the open-door intimacy suggested by its title, “Harry’s House” doesn’t have much in the way of furniture.
It is certainly the most distinct-sounding album Styles has made yet, and his production team of Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson (with whom Styles has worked closely on all his solo albums) concoct some vivid sonic landscapes. The album opens with the bright and playful “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” replete with horns, a gummy bass line and surprising bursts of stacked vocals. The dreamy “Daylight” has a psychedelic weightlessness and sudden crunches of electric guitar that recall Tame Impala, while the highlight “Grapejuice” frames a spryly ascending melody with a kind of jaunty piano and compressed vocal effect reminiscent of “Ram”-era Paul McCartney. Styles’s voice is sleek and nimble throughout, favoring a looser delivery — he actually scatson one song — than the flashy, belt-it-out pyrotechnics of his boy band days.
There is something sky-like about the whole album, and its 41 minutes unfurl with an air of pleasantly stoned contentment, occasionally overcast by some gentle melancholy that passes like a fleeting cloud. Styles’s current hit single “As It Was” is the closest he comes to sounding genuinely troubled, and part of what makes that song work is the tension between his muttered, slumped-shouldered vocals and the synth hook’s sprightly urgings to carry on.
The wedding-band funk of “Daydreaming” and the lyrically inane “Cinema” feel comparatively frictionless, and display Styles’s unfortunate tendency to write lyrics that feel more like precisely posed Instagram carousels than conjurings of specific emotional states. “Black-and-white film camera/Yellow sunglasses/Ashtray/Swimming pool,” he sings on the understated “Keep Driving,” the lyrics playing out like a stylish but stilted movie montage that takes the place of actual character development.
Styles is such a magnetic onstage performer, provocative interview subject and fearlessly androgynous fashion plate that his records have come to feel like missed opportunities — the least personality-driven expressions of his otherwise compelling celebrity. “Harry’s House” is a light, fun, summery pop record, but there is a gaping void as its center; by its end, the listener is inclined to feel more intimately acquainted with the objects of his affections than the internal world of the titular character himself.