We all knew it was coming
— we just didn’t know Harry Styles was going to do it this way.
The most famous member of the scarily famous One Direction boy band, which broke up last year and crushed the hearts of young millennials the world over, has finally unleashed his solo debut. It comes on the heels of the successful solo breakout album from Zayn Malik, fellow 1Der, who more or less followed in the moody-R&B-heartthrob path of Justin Timberlake and Nick Jonas (albeit getting moodier than either of those guys).
Harry Styles’ new solo single, “Sign of the Times,” is another beast altogether. It’s not even structured like a normal pop single. At nearly six minutes long, it’s far too long for the tastes of radio programmers, who prefer their tunes bite-sized at around three minutes (and, yes, radio still matters in 2017). It also starts with a hushed piano intro, before crashing into its pre-chorus and chorus and then going out on an extended outro in which Styles wails, “We got to get away!”
The power-ballad is already being compared to David Bowie, though to my ears, it also sounds like the orchestral-arrangements-and-guitar-thrashing bombast of Queen. Of all the things to sell in 2017, a classic-rock throwback would not be top of mind for most music executives, but there it is.
For some, however, Styles’ new song will bring to mind another recently dead and beloved British singer: George Michael. Adele sang a mournful tribute to Michael at the Grammys this year, and in his solo work, the ex-Wham! member indeed tackled some weighty, even tragic material.
At least in his plainspoken, emotional vocal delivery, Styles brings that George Michael spirit to “Sign of the Times,” which starts with the unsettling statement, “Stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times / Welcome to the final show / Hope you’re wearing your best clothes.”
Styles sings about running from “bullets.” His song could be about a lot of things in 2017 — global uncertainty, violence, or just tortured love. Like the best pop music, it’s specific, but it’s also universally applicable to the millions of people Styles hopes will consume it, possibly while shedding tears in their bedrooms.
It’s a gamble. Surely Styles and his manager hope that he can capture some of the same commercial magic as Adele with her balladry, though he doesn’t have the same proven vocal chops. Either way, “Sign of the Times” is a bold, brilliant, and fresh take on how to be a recovering boy-band boy wonder.
By the end of the song, you might ask yourself, “One Direction who?”
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