Harry Styles’ latest album demonstrates the tyranny of ‘good taste’. By Shaad D’Souza.
Harry Styles is 28 and, like so many chic, urbanite 20-somethings with taste and disposable income, he is getting really into furniture. On the cover of his new album, Harry’s House, he stands in a living room furnished with all the au courant pieces: a lovely mid-century couch, upholstered in burnt orange; a glowing mushroom lamp resting on a glass-and-chrome side table; and a minimalist white lounge chair that, although gorgeous, looks deeply uncomfortable – a bulging disc waiting to happen.
The entire set-up is aggressively, almost oppressively, stylish. It’s not necessarily an expression of Styles’ unique taste – Melbourne share houses with the same living room set-up are a dime a dozen – as much as an expression of what is generally tasteful. This cover is a bat signal for hip millennials denoting that Styles – unlike Drake, who lives in a gaudy McMansion, or any one of the Kardashians, whose houses all look like display homes – is a megastar with a refined palate.
The appearance of having good taste is all Styles has craved for as long as he’s been releasing music under his own name. Since leaving One Direction, the British boy band that turned him into a megastar practically overnight in the early 2010s, he has obsessively cultivated the perception of himself as a star out of time, a musician who has more in common with David Bowie or Fleetwood Mac than anyone releasing music today.
Styles does this with the primness and verve of a gifted child attempting to impress the adults in the room. He sprinkles his interviews with anecdotes that nod to his elevated array of influences. The working title of his debut album was Pink, because The Clash’s Paul Simonon once said that “pink is the only true rock’n’roll colour”. He was so taken with the dulcimer in Joni Mitchell’s music that he commissioned the very same woman who played it on Blue to make him one to play on his sophomore album, Fine Line. He got the idea for the title of Harry’s House from Hosono House, a 1973 album by Haruomi Hosono, one of the chief architects of Japanese pop. This is the Harry Styles artistic process: identify the things you love about your favourite albums and simply acquire them or reuse them wholesale, in the hope that some of the ingenuity of their creators will rub off on you.
It’s an unabashedly guileless way to make music, but then again, Styles is a uniquely guileless star. With a built-in fanbase for life and the knowledge that his albums will always make their budgets back, there is no imperative for him to interrogate his own process, or even to question whether there is a way to make “classic-sounding” music that doesn’t involve merely aping the classics. Harry’s House proceeds with an unnerving frictionlessness – it is an album with no raison d’être other than to telegraph its own tastefulness and its own self-proclaimed status as an Art Object, rather than a pop album. It is all bells, all whistles, no proper songs – nothing to prove that Styles has the chops he loves to imply he does.
The album’s opening track, “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”, typifies Styles’ approach on Harry’s House. Over a lithe, vulcanised bass line, he basically vamps for three minutes straight – “Green eyes, fried rice, I could cook an egg on you” – as his band noodles around him. With each successive verse arrives a new, self-consciously weird flourish – a rollicking horn section, some light scatting, a chorus of pitch-shifted Styleses, some ad libs screamed in an affected rock’n’roll yowl – each of which is more blatantly diversionary than the last. The entire song feels like a failed sleight-of-hand trick, a vortex of frilly production techniques attempting to distract from the fact that Styles’ lyrics land somewhere between painfully boring and Hallmark-card generic, as evinced by the song’s woefully light chorus: “It’s ’cause I love you babe / In every kind of way”.
As far as emotional insight goes, that’s pretty much all you’ll get on Harry’s House. Styles’ lyrics are all gestural, but they gesture to nothing in particular. He peppers the lyric sheet with images that feel vivid in the moment – “Things haven’t been quite the same”, “You were just doing cocaine in my kitchen”, “Ash tray, swimming pool” – but mean nothing in the context of any given song.
On the sprightly, synth-led “Late Night Talking”, intimations of a troubled relationship give way to a soppy chorus of “If you’re feeling down, I just wanna make you happier, baby”. The attempt in “Keep Driving” to sketch out a turbulent road trip leads to Styles listing breakfast foods: “Maple syrup, coffee / Pancakes for two / Hash brown, egg yolk / I will always love you.” As with the horns that fill the frame on “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”, these rich details, the kinds of tidbits more agile writers use to enliven a scene, feel like they’ve been deployed to obfuscate the fact that Styles has little to say. They don’t flesh out the characters of these songs because there are no characters on this record, just amorphous you’s and I’s that never come fully into focus.
Despite these failings, Harry’s House sounds lovely. Working again with his long-time collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, Styles lands on a palette that is slightly more interesting than the deeply reverential tones of Harry Styles and Fine Line, indebted to mid-noughties indie bands such as Metronomy and Vampire Weekend, groups whose surface-level softness hid remarkable virtuosity. But unlike those bands, or the more classic influences Styles regularly name-checks, there is nothing here that ever comes close to even disturbing the rich aesthetics, no vinegar to cut through all the fat. When Styles does venture out of his comfort zone, it feels as if he’s using a smokescreen of milquetoast experimentalism as a crutch to hide the failings of the song itself, as on “Satellite”, whose bombastic mid-track breakdown serves to unconvincingly add variety to a song that is, for the most part, the same three lines (“Don’t you know that I am right here? / Spinnin’ out, waitin’ for ya to pull me in”) repeated over and over.
You get the sense that, were Styles a little more willing to venture outside the realm of generally accepted good taste, Harry’s House might have ended up a half-decent record. Of course, it’s clear from listening to the album that did eventuate that Styles would think that proposition – the idea that challenging a listener might be more interesting or more artistically significant than simply acquiescing to them – to be a complete paradox. Harry’s House is so profligate in its desire to be liked and to seem fashionable that it ends up feeling pleasant but totally forgettable, undeniably chic but cool to the touch. It feels more like Harry’s Airbnb: perfectly decorated with nobody inside.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Pretty vacant".
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