Harry’s House by Harry Styles
By Tyler Mandell | Top tracks: As It Was, Matilda, Grapejuice
I had written about Harry Styles’ sophomore album Fine Line earlier this year, and I felt unimpressed with most of it but hoped Harry’s third LP would help him grow and fix some of his shortcomings. And while it has its moments, Harry’s House is just another so-so album.
It’s quite interesting how his throwback sound seems to age up with each new album: his debut was heavily indebted to 60s and early 70s rock, and Fine Line was made up of 70s Californian soft rock. This album is inspired by early 80s post-disco and early 2010s indie pop. Like the album or not, it’s an interesting and fresh move. If he continues aging his sound like this, I eagerly await his next two albums, which should be influenced by glam metal and grunge, respectively.
The opener “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” is the most obvious of the album’s influences, being an attempt at a big 80s party anthem, like “Let’s Dance” or “Give It to Me Baby”. It fails because Harry is trying too hard to be quirky with silly scatting and lyrics like the food-sex metaphors of “Watermelon Sugar” taken to their most eye-rolling extreme. What’s worse is the song’s production: the various audio effects on the backing vocals are obnoxious, and the horn section feels so synthetic and processed to where it’s almost ear-grating.
“Late Night Talking”, the second track, also has mediocre production but it works despite itself. Harry’s voice sounds weirdly artificial, and the song suffers from cheap-sounding synthesizers. At the same time, it’s nothing more than a cute little pop song that’s hard to loathe, and the chorus is quite enjoyable. Though while I’ll be generous for that song, there’s too many tracks here that are also fluffy and small-scale but to the point where they’re like padding. Songs like “Daylight”, “Keep Driving”, and “Little Freak” have little to offer (though the shoegaze guitars on “Daylight” are impeccable if wasted) with laughably shallow or silly attempts at romantic and introspective lyrics. This is most noticeable in the penultimate song “Boyfriends”, which has nice vocal harmonies but is too surface level and underwritten for a difficult subject like abusive relationships and comes across as condescending.
I’ll say that there were a few songs I was fond of, like “Grapejuice”, which has great production and fun genre mixing. Harry said that Haruomi Hosono’s album “Hosono House” was an influence on this record, and this song reminded me of the urban slice-of-life feeling that city pop has. My favorite song was the loose and fun “As It Was” due to its soaring drums, new wavey synths, and its weird semi-rap breakdown at the end. I really dig it, even if it doesn’t feel like “lead single” material and you could compare it to a million other indie rock songs with less attention. Much further down the track list is the song “Satellite”, which is cute and fun with its adorable lyrics, though it somewhat feels like if “As It Was” wasn’t as engaging and fumbled its ending – even if it’s still worth a listen.
“Matilda” was widely considered one of the album’s highlights, a melancholy folk ballad acclaimed for the poignancy and emotion captured. While I could be cynical, it did leave me moved and emotionally affected. It’s embarrassing to admit my liking for it considering how many of Harry’s ballads I’ve disliked. The song succeeds because the vocals and especially the melodies here are beautiful and well complement the sense of tragedy the song has. I could nitpick some of the more blunt or cloying lyrics, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. The songwriting is good here, and the themes of family abuse work better than the similarly produced “Boyfriends” because of the more concise lyrics and nuance. It’s one of the few songs on the album that’s successful in what it sets out to do.
On the more playful side of things, the song “Daydreaming” heavily samples “Ain’t We Funkin Now” by The Brothers Johnson. The track doesn’t work because it doesn’t understand how to make funk really soar, ignoring the horns and bass and overuses its four-on-the-floor beat, lyrical hook, and good sample. It isn’t terrible, as it has a fun, rambunctious energy throughout, but it’s only filler. Though the vocal harmonies are good, and Harry really gives it his all vocally in the second half. “Cinema” is a better attempt at funk, feeling loose with a great baseline and smooth, slinky vocals from Harry. It’s almost enough to endure the embarrassing lyrics, yet the track goes nowhere and feels incomplete, ending on an uninspired note of Harry just yelling the chorus. Like most of the record, it’s likeable but little more than wasted potential.
The closer “Love of My Life” is decent enough but I’m not sure of its purpose: was it made solely to give the album a moody closer, like Harry’s other albums had? Is it tying into a lyrical theme that I’m missing? I read the song was a tribute to England and his nationality, though the writing is too vague to get much from that. Themes aside, I really like the melancholy atmosphere of the song. It reminds me of artsier, more gothic types of 80s synth-rock, though I still feel unsure of it.
Isn’t that the album in a nutshell? A bunch of occasionally interesting 80s references but I’m left hollow inside. This might be Harry’s best album so far, as it’s his most consistently sounding work to date, but it’s still hurt by too many mediocre songs and bad lyricism. Sure, there’s little bad here, but the songs never really go beyond “pretty good” or even have that much ambition. It never feels like he’s pushing himself, a quality that his earlier albums had even if it was usually unsuccessful. And that’s a shame because I think Harry Styles has the potential to rise above himself and be like one of the classic rock stars he fantasizes about. It’s one thing to make a so-so record, but to do it three times in a row is almost worth praise.