Harry Styles‘ new album Harry’s House, is, to reference his debut solo single, a “Sign of the Times”. While its title suggests its creation in both the mental and physical isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the album experiments with a variety of new sounds for Styles. On this, his third solo LP, Styles moves on from the progressive rock of his self-titled debut and the Laurel Canyon-inspired folk and funk of his hit sophomore record Fine Line, venturing into the 1980s territory of bombastic choruses backed by layered vocals and synths.
Styles opens Harry’s House with a song more a sonic statement than a lyrical one, although its title, “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”, and the lyrics, “I could cook an egg on you”, depict a clear image of a date in a dimly lit bistro. The chorus of “Sushi Restaurant” features an infectiously catchy trumpet piece over a wordless vocal arrangement, announcing that, although Harry’s House will delve into heavy emotions, it won’t forget to have fun. The next song embodies both of these qualities. In “Late Night Talking”, Styles says, “But I’d follow you to any place / If it’s Hollywood or Bishopsgate”. That’s before jumping into a chorus where synthesizers punctuate lyrical phrases and a giddy invocation of “I can’t get you off my mind”, recalling 1950s doo-wop. But that’s about as far back in time as Styles’ influences go.
Although Styles, one of the biggest celebrities on the planet, maintains a closely-guarded private life, his music often provides autobiographical detail for fans and critics to dissect. Like Taylor Swift (an ex-girlfriend who Styles allegedly wrote a song about) and Joni Mitchell (who has greatly influenced Styles), Harry Styles’ art narrates his storied life while he remains mum about the subjects of his songs in interviews. However, many critics dismissed his debut solo album as a plea to be taken seriously in his post-boy band career. Styles admitted that he avoided writing songs similar to the highly commercial songs of One Direction on his debut, saying to Better Home and Garden, “I’d come out of the band, and it was like, if I want to be taken seriously as a musician, then I can’t make fun music.”
However, his sophomore record struck a careful balance between radio-ready songs (“Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar”) and ballads (“Falling” and “Fine Line”). Harry’s House strikes this balance as well, but not distinctly between songs. Instead, each track bears the introspection and sonic experimentation of a serious artist and the catchiness of a commercial one.
The sensory details of “Keep Driving” on Harry’s House bolster the song’s autobiographical portrayal of experiencing Southern California as a celebrity, with private moments described alongside raucous ones. This track upstages previous confessionals, such as Fine Line’s “Falling”. Although “Falling” lands emotionally with the listener, its lack of detail and imagery keeps the listener from visualizing the subject of the song. On “Keep Driving”, Styles says, “Pancakes for two / Hash brown, egg yolk / I will always love you.” Here, he links innocuous objects and existential emotions. Small details often encapsulate the most powerful human emotions. In Harry’s House, Styles understands this. The vividly rendered memories become like furniture in the house of Styles’ mind, where we are all invited to stay.
Harry’s House is a quarantine album. After a near-decade of constant public attention, Styles became shut inside with a group of close friends. “I realized that that home feeling isn’t something that you get from a house; it’s more of an internal thing,” he said. The notion of home as an internal, portable concept functions as the thesis of this record, which thematically explores different definitions of home. In “Matilda”, Styles addresses a friend who is estranged from her family. For the purposes of the song, he gives her the name of the well-known Roald Dahl character, a misfit in her own family. Styles addresses the subject without patronizing her, maintaining careful distance as he narrates the effect of her tragedy on his heart. (“It’s none of my business, but it’s just been on my mind.”)
“Matilda” doubles as a catharsis for Styles and an exercise in expressing concern. This duality assures Styles doesn’t come off as a typical male savior figure, who saves an object of affection from one toxic environment only to whisk her away into another. Instead, Styles gives the track’s subject with advice that leaves her in control of her fate: “I know they won’t hurt you anymore as long as you can let them go.”
Styles’ advice about setting boundaries is hard-earned. He became famous from a reality-TV show: there isn’t a baby picture of him that isn’t on the internet. Although his experience with tabloid fame may not compare to the trauma of “Matilda’s” subject, Styles has nonetheless learned how to interact with the public without giving too much of himself. As a member of One Direction, Styles said he was encouraged to give parts of himself away in order “to get people to engage with you, to like you”. Because this is the basis of his career, he must always maintain some level of exposure. But he has learned to withhold details, for example, refusing to tell ex-girlfriend Kendall Jenner which song from his debut LP he wrote about her on The Late Late Show. Styles’ actual product is his personality, and he has more than enough to sell.
Of Harry’s House, Pitchfork said, “Substance sometimes lacks, but style always abounds.” That’s not necessarily a sign of someone who lacks the lyrical chops of inspiration Joni Mitchell. It’s part of the design of his songs. As a massive media personality, Styles doesn’t need to expose detail in his music if he doesn’t want to for them to make an impact on culture. He just needs to be the one singing them, and his personality needs to animate them. Although an easily identifiable muse on “Two Ghosts”, a deep cut from his debut, generated hype for the album, a lack of detail can also increase the mystique of Styles’ persona. (The muse of “Two Ghosts” is allegedly Taylor Swift, ID’ed by the lyrics “Same lips red / Same eyes blue / Same white shirt couple more tattoos…”)
One song on Harry’s House that may appear more fun and less substantial, “Cinema”, might offer a clue about Styles’ life. He says, “I bring the pop to the cinema / You pop when we get intimate.” In 2021, Styles was romantically linked to director Olivia Wilde, who directed the upcoming film Don’t Worry Darling, in which Styles stars. “Cinema” might allude to their romance but offers little else in terms of detail. Regardless, Styles makes the song musically and lyrically engaging as he intones, “You got, you got the cinema” over a funky R&B beat. “I want all of you / Gimme all you got /That’s cinema,” he adds, bringing to mind the question: who’s really directing the show?
However, in Harry’s House, allusions to increased social consciousness, the internet, and other aspects of consumer culture outweigh the importance of autobiography. In “As It Was”, the record’s number one-charting lead single, Styles contemplates a change in a relationship over a chipper background of electric guitar that imitates a-ha’s “Take on Me”. The astute observations come quietly in the bridge: “Go home get ahead / Light speed internet / I don’t want to talk about the way that it was.” Here, Styles laments 21st-century consumer and work culture, in which the internet has enabled constant competition and consumption.
As a star who became famous when social media exploded and was in one of the biggest tabloid romances of the social media era, Styles has a unique vantage point in observing our quickly shrinking world. As people huddle around screens, individuality is stripped away. On “Keep Driving”, Styles bemoans, “Science, edibles / Life hacks going viral.” His allusion to internet trends sounds more like a eulogy for the parts of life sucked into the digi-sphere rather than an invocation of a new era. Similarly, on her album Norman Fucking Rockwell! Lana Del Rey punctuated the ballad about loss, “The greatest,” with the line, “Oh, the livestream’s almost on.” Both Styles and Del Rey imply that what the public sees of celebrities, or anyone on the internet, is artifice. The real emotions pour out while we’re waiting for the camera to start rolling.
Styles’ most adept social commentary on Harry’s House, “Boyfriends”, laments the habits of banally ignorant men in the fashion of Del Rey. In an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Low, Styles said the song “…is both acknowledging my own behavior. It’s looking at behavior that I’ve witnessed.” Although Styles implicated himself in the song’s explanation, could its methodical deconstruction of manipulative male behavior be pandering to a fanbase of young girls, who Styles claims to respect so much? (“Boyfriends everywhere, f*ck you!” Styles proclaimed during his Coachella performance.) Styles understands stereotypical men well enough to portray their flaws in “Boyfriends.” (“He secretly starts drinking / It gets so hard to know what he’s thinking.”)
However, Styles also understands stereotypical young girls well enough to make his analysis of male flaws scan as sympathy for women. In her new book, Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany writes that One Direction were “a group of boys whose commercial proposition is that they would never hurt you.” Styles is smart enough to commercialize his understanding of male and female perspectives.
However, Styles’ allusion to an inspiration reveals he meaningfully attempts to transcend gender roles. “Harry’s House” is also the title of a Joni Mitchell song, in which the singer-songwriter talks about, “Battalions of paper-minded males / Talking commodities and sales / While at home their paper wives / Paper the walls…” In Harry’s House, Styles papers over the walls of his residence with joy, sadness, hope, and guilt in equal measure. The public has erected this house around him throughout his career, as the trappings of fame have threatened to ensnare him. However, since departing One Direction, he has proven the elasticity of his persona and musical palette. On an album that, through its title, implies intimacy and solitude, Styles shows there are no four walls that can contain him.