Harry Styles always seemed like the guy having the best time in One Direction: a dimpled, rakish prankster happy to wear the mantle of Class Clown — maybe because he knew that Most Likely to Succeed belonged to him too. He wore the absurdity of boy-band fame lightly, with a wink and smile, and even his look (the swirling quiff of hair, the louche satin shirts, the scrappy jumble of stick-and-poke tattoos) had the dress-for-the-job-you-want whiff of incipient solo stardom.
That giddy hedonist is all over his self-titled debut, but there’s a surprising dose of Serious Harry here. In the video for the yearning, Bowie-esque “Sign of the Times,” he soars alone through a marshy hinterland, begging in an earnest falsetto, “Why are we always stuck/And running from the bullets?” (A nod perhaps to his role as a British soldier in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming WWII epic Dunkirk. Or just, you know, heavy metaphor.) If early 1D defector Zayn Malik ran toward glassy, future-perfect R&B, Styles is a man proudly looking backward, a faithful revivalist steeped in the tao of dusty vinyl and dad rock. Opener “Meet Me in the Hallway” offers gauzy campfire folk; “Two Ghosts” is a mournful acoustic autopsy of love lost; “Sweet Creature,” a strummy lullaby. They’re delicate sketches, wistful and pretty. And they sound like songs that would be beat up in the bathroom by the likes of “Kiwi” and “Only Angel,” two swaggering slabs of codpiece rock; the shag-rug come-on “Carolina”; and “Woman,” a Lennon-style stomper with a “Bennie and the Jets” piano intro and an all-caps chorus. Reconciling the folkie and the rogue hardly seems like Harry’s priority; instead, the 23-year-old basks in the privilege of paying tribute to his many musical heroes, and trying on all the styles that fit.