When One Directioner Harry Styles released his debut single, "Sign of the Times," last month, it was a genuine shocker. That the 23-year-old singer associated with three-minute radio-pop would kick-start his solo career with a nearly six-minute piano ballad was bold, to say the least. But now that the full-length has landed, the question is: How does Styles hold up, Directionless?
At its best, the self-titled LP presents impressively composed and thoughtful folk numbers ("Sign of the Times," "Ever Since New York"). At its worst, Styles sounds like he just heard the Beatles' Rubber Soul for the first time and told his producer, "I want to sound like that!" ("Carolina").
Album opener "Meet Me in the Hallway" sets the stage with reverb-soaked verses, providing nice ambience that works to elevate the comparatively swollen chorus. "Sweet Creature" is another Beatles Jr. song that, although suspiciously reminiscent of "Blackbird," is pleasant enough. Mid-section tracks "Only Angel" and "Kiwi," meanwhile, are the sorts of cookie-cutter dad rock that would be dismissed if any artist besides Harry Styles released them.
There seems to be a creative tug-of-war permeating the album: It could be the record label not wanting Styles to veer too far into singer-songwriter territory; it could be Styles himself afraid of penning music his predominantly younger audience wouldn't normally listen to. Whatever it is, it gives the album a minor but nonetheless pervasive identity crisis. "Woman" for instance, feels like it belongs on a different record, with its sensual spoken word opening in which Harry proposes Netflix and Chill.
Fortunately, "From the Dining Table" closes the album on a high note. Harry provides a delicate vibrato in the chorus and lyrics that are the most candid and sincere found on the record. If more tracks contained this fragility and tried less to appease old fans ("Woman," "Only Angel"), Styles' solo outing would be hard not to enjoy from top to bottom. It's hardly a lost cause, though — there's a handful of above-average tunes here, and an earnestness that suggests Harry Styles will have a fruitful solo career. (Sony)