Harry Styles review – fruitful times for a star still finding himself

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow
When not being pelted with kiwis, Styles is doing an admirable job of figuring out his path post-One Direction

Blame the law of unintended consequences: the kiwi fruit has had a pivotal role to play in Harry Styles’s first UK tour as a solo star. On stage in London, Styles slipped on one. Thrown by a fan, it was not a negative review of the former boy band member’s new, rockier bent, but a ploy to get Styles to play his song Kiwi – one of the more guitar-driven tracks on his self-titled debut album, released last May.

On the Manchester leg of the tour, a branch of Asda actually banned the sale of kiwis to anyone under 25. But at least one rogue kiwi got in there; Styles had to duck another missile.

In Glasgow, thankfully, they eschew fruit. We are inside a small theatre known as the Armadillo; arenas will follow in 2018. When Styles finally plays Kiwi, it brings this small, but baying twentysomething crowd to a peak. A pummelling glam stomp, it depicts a heady affair involving “hard liquor mixed with a little bit of intellect”. The song is rumoured to be about Styles’s tryst with a New Zealand model, perhaps the one who posted a video on Snapchat of Styles playing Scrabble with her in a dressing gown.

Transported by the power of rock’n’roll, Styles ends tonight’s full-blooded rendition of Kiwi by flinging a pint of liquid over the crowd and chucking the plastic glass after it. He is clearly enjoying himself; and, you could argue, he deserves to. Styles has managed to turn his back on One Direction and their sound without rubbishing his days as a teen idol. He covers two 1D songs tonight, Stockholm Syndrome and What Makes You Beautiful, duly guitared-up to fit the new regime. By contrast, Zayn Malik left 1D acrimoniously, and pointedly turned into a sultry R&B heartthrob. The various other Directions have taken myriad other musical paths, none of them much good.

Live, Styles’s tunes vary, but largely convince. A song like Two Ghosts – allegedly about his relationship with Taylor Swift – has all the makings of a terrific country song, perhaps in tribute to Swift’s genre roots; it is crying out for a weepy pedal-steel solo.

Carolina, by contrast, emphasises the album’s gentle familiarity with the Beatles’ catalogue. The stompers here are punctuated by dreamy, gauzy intros and interludes, sensitive indie-rock shadings and unexpectedly good musicianship – particularly from guitarist Mitch Rowland, plucked from pizza-restaurant obscurity to co-write much of Harry Styles. He could easily solo most obnoxiously – the version of “rock” that most often turns up in pop.

Instead, he confines his guitar to well-appointed groans rather than squeals. There is only one truly terrible song – Only Angel, a series of boorish musical and lyrical cliches that sits ill with the moving, believable candour of tracks like From the Dining Table, in which Styles masturbates sadly in a hotel room.

Listening to it all again, Styles’s album is, for the most part, full of regret at silences and miscommunication – a convincing display of emotional intelligence that puts peers like Justin Bieber in deep shade. Styles has two women in his band – drummer Sarah Jones and Scottish keyboard player Clare Uchima, whose family are well-represented in the house. (“If you’re a crazy Glaswegian auntie,” Styles hollers at the end of the heavy funk-rock of Woman, “put your hands in the air!”)

Watch Harry Styles playing Two Ghosts live in the studio.

The majority of Styles’s LA tourmates, Muna, identify as queer; his merchandise says “treat people with kindness”. Towards the end, Styles gets everyone to hold the hand of the person next to them, encouraging support and non-judgment.

You get the sense that, having matured in content and developed some muscular snowflake tendencies, Styles is still trying out identities – stagediving free spirit (just the once in LA), heartland balladeer, dandy, sensitive soul. He hasn’t gone the full Matt Healy (the 1975’s singer routinely sports leather trousers) but Styles’s uncertain grasp of what guitar music purveyors should look like is expressed by a series of garish Austin Powers suits.

Tonight, perhaps the most disappointing revelation about Styles Mk II is that he has so little natural rhythm. The two most successful boy band refugees – Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams – have the super-smooth moves of more natural show-offs. Styles, by contrast, expresses abandon by stalking across the stage, shaking his fists. He makes no mention of kiwis, but brings on a leathery cingulate. “This is the nicest armadillo I have ever come across,” he beams.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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