On his third LP, “Harry’s House,” Harry Styles is still a dreamy figure.
The title of the pop star’s new album sounds like an invitation to get close, but the music and lyrics aren’t as personal as the title suggests.
On his third solo album, “Harry’s House,” the incredibly charismatic former member of the British boy band One Direction, Harry Styles, who is 28 years old, often sings from the point of view of a wise elder, a personal cheerleader, and a free therapist.
“You can throw a party with everyone you know and not invite your family, ’cause they never loved you,” he sings in the acoustic ballad “Matilda,” a tender character study about a woman who carries the weight of past traumas until the narrator gives her permission to let them go. In a later song with the same name, he sings, “Boyfriends, they take you for granted, they don’t realize they’re just misunderstanding you.” That song, which has some nimble fingerpicking by singer-songwriter Ben Harper, looks at its male subject with a bemused distance, as if he were a type of normal person that an empathic person like Styles could never belong to.
The sound of “Harry’s House” is more adventurous and eclectic than most of the music Styles made with One Direction. The album’s title, “Harry’s House,” is an obscure reference to the Japanese singer-songwriter Haruomi Hosono’s 1973 album “Hosono House.” However, “Harry’s House” has the same sense of generosity and devotion to the female subject and, by extension, the listener that his former group did. Kaitlyn Tiffany, a journalist, says in her soon-to-be-published and very entertaining book “Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It” that One Direction was “a group of boys whose selling point was that they wouldn’t hurt you.”
Styles was in 1D from the time he was 16 until he was 24. When he went off on his own, his most popular songs were still about women, but they were more mature and less self-centered. From his 2019 album “Fine Line,” the beachy hit “Watermelon Sugar” was a tongue-in-cheek but sensually serious song about giving women pleasure. Another sweet song on that album was called “Adore You,” which says it all.
Styles’s music is definitely easier to listen to than the many pop songs that are full of overtly sexist lyrics. But this focus on other people has also made Styles feel like a bit of a cipher on his records. This problem was less obvious on the better song “Fine Line,” which partly told the story of a breakup and gave Styles room to wallow, cross the line, and sometimes take a revealing jab at his ex’s new partner (“Does he take you walking around his parents’ gallery?”). Even though the name “Harry’s House” makes it sound like it has an open door, there isn’t much furniture in it.
It’s definitely the most unique-sounding album Styles has made so far, and Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, who have worked closely with Styles on all of his solo albums, make some beautiful soundscapes. “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” the first song on the album, is bright and fun. It has horns, a gummy bass line, and surprising bursts of stacked vocals. The dreamy song “Daylight” has psychedelic sounds and electric guitar crunches that remind me of Tame Impala. The best song, “Grapejuice,” has a melody that rises quickly and is framed by a piano and vocal effect that remind me of Paul McCartney’s “Ram” period. Styles’s voice is always smooth and agile, and he prefers a looser style of singing (he even scats on one song) to the flashy, belt-it-out pyrotechnics of his boy band days.
The whole album has a sky-like feel to it, and its 41 minutes unfold with a feeling of happy stoned contentment that is sometimes clouded by a light sadness that moves on quickly. Styles’s current hit single “As It Was” is the closest he gets to sounding really troubled, and part of what makes that song work is the tension between his mumbled, slumped-shouldered vocals and the synth hook’s upbeat encouragements to keep going.
The wedding-band funk of “Daydreaming” and the meaningless lyrics of “Cinema” feel relatively smooth and show that Styles has a bad habit of writing lyrics that feel more like carefully posed Instagram carousels than evocations of specific feelings. On the simple song “Keep Driving,” he sings, “Black-and-white film camera/Yellow sunglasses/Ashtray/Swimming pool.” The lyrics sound like a stylish but stilted movie montage that stands in for real character development.
Styles is such a captivating performer on stage, a thought-provoking interview subject, and a fearlessly androgynous fashion plate that his records feel like missed opportunities. They are the least personality-driven parts of his otherwise fascinating fame. “Harry’s House” is a light, fun, summery pop record, but there is a huge hole in the middle of it. By the end of the song, the listener is more likely to feel like they know the main character’s loves better than they do his own thoughts.