Harry Styles is a Rorschach test – the antithesis of his pop peers who are very keen to set the terms of their own narrative and furiously reject what they perceive as incorrect interpretations of their work. He offers little information about his personal life, and seldom cares to address comments about his relationships and sexuality; a recent cover profile in Rolling Stone provided a portrait of a boy at ease with fame, partial to Steely Dan and magic mushrooms, but not much in the way of hard detail.
This laissez-faire approach is probably a reaction to spending his teenage years in One Direction, a band tightly controlled so as not to alienate potential consumers, though the upshot is much the same: he can be all things to all people. A sceptic could take it as a commercial strategy; another might suggest that such an approach wouldn’t be available to female pop stars, who are generally held to more punishing standards. Either way, there is something quite soothing about his welcome-all-comers approach.
Lights Up, his excellent comeback single – presumably the first from his forthcoming second album – is another open door. It largely leaves behind the 70s rock influences of his 2017 debut for more soulful territory, halfway between the rootedness of Michael Kiwanuka and the celestial airiness of Frank Ocean. It is laced with surprises – the looping, stilted pre-chorus cracks the easy mood, and even the sound of a gospel choir gets processed to an unnerving intensity – and sounds nothing like his blandly secular British male peers, or the narcotised synth-pop that’s dominated this year.
As with his debut solo single, Sign of the Times (2017), Lights Up could easily straddle the Radio 1 and 2 playlists: the former thanks to his residual teen heartthrob status, the latter courtesy of the sophisticated production and conspicuous vintage elements. Meanwhile, the hardcore element of his fanbase have taken it as “proof” of Styles’s coming out as bisexual – his progressive attitude to sexuality (other people’s – he has never elucidated his own) and gender-fluid dress sense have seen him adopted as a queer ally. He sings about wondering who he is, coming into the light and refusing to go back; the song was released on National Coming Out Day, and the unequivocally sexy video features a shirtless, sweaty Styles being grasped at by dancers of all genders.
Who knows if they’re right – Styles’s ability to imply intimacy while remaining beguilingly vague is his defining pop trait. The verses of Lights Up could find him and a former partner talking at cross-purposes around the void of a relationship, or they could be a conflicted inner monologue; the personal revelation he unearths in the chorus is as blinding as it is oblique: “Step into the light … I’m not ever going back.” While Styles is unlikely to offer up the results of self-actualisation publicly, his unlikely post-boyband evolution remains captivating.