Soft rock with an edge

On Harry Styles' self-titled debut album, one gets the feeling that the 23-year-old is relishing singing his own music and not mouthing vapid lyrics and dancing with his boyband One Direction.

Styles, with his old soul, breaks free by borrowing heavily from the evergreen best in the business. It is not hard to pinpoint his rock 'n' roll influences.

Sweet Creature is a modern-day take on The Beatles' Blackbird with its delicate guitar picking. On the blues-rock track Woman, you can hear the jaunty piano riff from Elton John's Bennie And The Jets. The sombre, country-tinged Two Ghosts borrows Pink Floyd lyrics: "We're just two ghosts swimming in a glass half empty, trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat" is similar to the English band's "we're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year", a line off Wish You Were Here.

His debut single, Sign Of The Times, a bombastic slice of rock-pop perfection, has been compared to the late David Bowie's Space Oddity, by virtue of a Bowie-esque "whoosh" sound effect. This is the strongest track on the album - from the tension- building strings to the choir- backed vocals, the conviction of his delivery is beyond his years.

Styles pushes himself on tracks such as Only Angel, which veers towards glam rock, complete with hand claps and heavy guitars a la The Rolling Stones. But his inexperience shows when he falls into tired tropes such as "she's a devil in between the sheets".

He fares better on Kiwi, where he waxes lyrical about a wild child ("She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes, hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect"). The track continues with raucous guitars and screeching feedback.

  • SOFT ROCK/ POP

  • Harry Styles

    Columbia

    4/5 stars

The bulk of his subject matter is, unsurprisingly, girls, girls, girls, and part of the fun is figuring out which song is about which of his ex-girlfriends. His high-profile romances include Taylor Swift (Two Ghost's references "same lips red, same eyes blue") and Kiwi is probably about New Zealand model Georgia Fowler.

He sounds most self-assured on the slower numbers. Ever Since New York, with its lush, multi-part harmonies ("oh tell me something I don't already know") and galloping drums, sounds like The Joshua Tree-era U2. It is sweeping, seminal and beautiful.

The harmonies return on From The Dining Table, which has a Bon Iver-type introspective quality. "We haven't spoke since you went away, comfortable silence is so overrated."

The album's pop sensibilities and crossover potential are never lost, thanks to Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk.

Here is a former boyband member who did not have to go down the sexy R&B route (like former band members Zayn Malik or Liam Payne) or the electronic dance music route (like Louis Tomlinson) to shed his teeny-bopper past. Soft rock with an edge could be the perfect fit for Styles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2017, with the headline 'Soft rock with an edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe