Oooh, look, it’s a new song by Harry Styles called “Cinema”. This is so sultry and luxurious, in an ultra-slick, maximalist 80’s sort of way, that it sounds like he’s gliding across a 3-mile-wide waterbed on a jet ski. This isn’t the first Harry Styles song that reminds me of Taylor Swift’s “Style.” Which, perhaps because Harry Styles was dead in the 1980s, sounds more like Get Lucky-era Daft Punk’s lush odes to ’80s maximalism. (The slinky bass, the strutting electric guitar, the night-time sunglass glow of the keyboards, the ever-present sense of neon.) What functions John Mayer play some of that electric guitar. Which revolves around the refrain: “I just think you’re cool / I dig your cinema.” Which culminates in the playfully sung lines “I bring the pop to the cinema / You pop when we get intimate”, perhaps a cheeky allusion on Harry’s much-rumoured-famous director girlfriend. Which (I should have started with) ends its first verse like this:
I guess we’re in time
If you wet yourself for me
I guess you’re all mine
If you sleep with me in this bed
All of this is also … boring? Not boring. Not exactly. Handsome. Controlled. Elegant. Elegant to the point of sleepiness. Okay, it’s a bit boring. It is a miracle of extravagant everydayness. “Cinema” sounds more like John Mayer than it does acts like John Mayer if you get me. Harry’s house, the affable gun-grade pop star’s third solo album, released Friday, is Styles’ pandemic album, his domesticity album, his Working on Myself album, his Not-So-Dangerously in Love album. Yes, it’s his ’80s synth-pop album, too: I’m suspicious when everyone agrees a new song sounds just like an old song, but the luscious (and chart-topping) lead single “As It Was” with his catchy synth riff and its subtly exciting sense of propulsion is a great update of A-ha’s “Take on Me”; You can imagine a perfectly sketched Harry thrashing about in a narrow hallway, trying to transform himself back into a real boy. I also like the soft choreography and the bright red coat.
“I realized you don’t get that home feeling from a house,” Styles explained in April. “It’s more of an internal thing. You can tell if you stop for a minute.” What he says here isn’t quite as revealing as the fact that he said it during a cover story for Better houses and gardens. Harry’s house, produced primarily by his longtime solo career cohorts Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, goes off so smoothly and is so committed to leaving no unpleasant aftertaste that it occasionally runs the risk of leaving no flavor at all. The opening track is an upbeat canned funk jam called “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”; The first words out of Harry’s mouth are, “Green eyes, fried rice / I could boil you an egg.” The choppy bassline thumps. The choppy horn riffs sizzle. But it’s all immaculately lit without generating much heat; Styles sounds like a hypertalented guy who knows his Prince records, but thinks the most important part of the Prince song “Starfish and Coffee” is the food descriptions.
Here’s how, with an extra portly little song called “Keep Driving,” you get as much menu planning as you would at home: “Maple / Syrup / Coffee / Pancakes for two / Hash Brown / Egg Yolk / I will / Always love you.” I got those the stylish little breaks in Harry’s voice, the ragged edges of his falsetto, but this is a song that veers towards the more snooze end of British soft rock (more Keane than Coldplay) and it all works as effectively as the soft background music, that it took me five listens to realize that one of the biggest pop stars on earth is singing the words “Side Boob” and “Cocaine” back to back, right after he’s sung “Life Hacks Going Viral in the Bathroom.” That’s just before he sings “Choke her with a sea view” followed by him singing “Moka Pot Mondays.” All of this is pleasantly startling and immensely charming and with exquisite taste, as befits a guy who is Shania twain released while he was headlining Coachella a few weeks ago. But I wish he had taken the privilege of having something more fun.
It’s worth noting that this guy’s records are slowly and inexorably growing on me. Harry Styles, from 2017, was an explicit piece for singer-songwriter gravitas, giving the world both the massive, slow-burning torch song “Sign of the Times” and the cowbell-driven semi-sleazefest “Only Angel”. (Actually, I was listening Harry Styles and 1996s Sheryl Crow Back to back, which explains a hell of a lot.)
fine line, from 2019, is probably still my favourite: I never really took a liking to the brutal repeat of the blockbuster single “Watermelon Sugar”, but the quieter moments of this record – the softly plucked “Cherry” and the tightly wound piano Jam “Falling” – aging beautifully. Like every boy band superstar who’s gone solo, Styles has always sought to prove his mettle as a true artist, though he’s always been shrewd that boy band artistry is as genuine as any other. Harry’s house may indeed prove to have hidden depth, but on first contact they’re all glossy surfaces with not much to cling to. The catchiest jams here (see the synth-pop majesty of “Late Night Talking”) sound like Bruno Mars with less sparkle and the most coherent lyrical statements (“If I was a Bluebird / I would fly to you / You would be the spoon / Dip you in honey so I could be stick to you”) might sound better over the breakfast table, if not on it.
However, I can only say which songs will grow on me. The delicate “Little Freak” mixes more fingerpicked guitar and lush keyboards into a devious innuendo effect, and Harry’s beguiling habit of offering rich lyrical detail out of context adds to the mystique: “Did you dress up for Halloween? / I spilled beer on your friend, I’m not sorry / A golf swing and a trampoline / Maybe we’ll do that again.” And “Matilda” quietens down even more to hit even harder, with a smooth acoustic guitar riff playing soft grand piano chords make room. Harry’s cracked falsetto goes into overdrive as he tastefully sketches a vague but moving portrait of trauma and recovery: “I know they won’t hurt you anymore / As long as you can let them go.”
Harry Styles has a way of making you want to cheer for him and whoever he’s cheering for. His empathy is an underappreciated element of his star power, and if he risks coming across as a little cheesy at times, so be it. (“Boyfriends / They think you’re so easy / They take you for saved / They not know that that are just misunderstandings”, the song “Boyfriends” begins.) The voluptuous and slightly horny domesticity of Harry’s house isn’t exactly electrifying, but it’s quite unusual for an up-and-coming blockbuster pop album. A sleepy little tune called “Grapejuice,” which is about, uh, wine, makes you roll your eyes. “There’s never been anyone who was my perfect match / But I got over it and said, ‘Give me something old and red’ / I’ll pay more for it than I did then,” he says, referring to the price of the bottle more than the severity of the hangover. But if you’re not expecting total frenzy from this album, it will still heat you up nicely.