A few weeks back, Harry Styles announced his US tour dates. They offered the kind of itinerary one can only boggle at: multiple shows in huge venues, including a staggering 10 nights at Madison Square Garden. It’s not merely that Styles has leapfrogged his fellow former One Direction members in terms of popularity, although he clearly has: spare a thought for little Niall Horan peddling his mum-friendly MOR, Louis Tomlinson’s tepid indie rock and, indeed, the lascivious pop-R&B of Liam Payne and Zayn Malik, who called his last album Nobody Is Listening, a title that eerily predicted its commercial response. It’s that he seems to have pulled off one of the hardest tricks in pop – the transition from manufactured scream-inducing teen idol to more mature artist – more effectively than anyone since Justin Timberlake, attracting none of the snarky sniffiness that attached itself to even his most noted forebears.
Months before its release, there were people online earnestly unpicking the links between his forthcoming third album Harry’s House and the work of Joni Mitchell. At the end of March, the actual Joni Mitchell – not, in any account, one of rock history’s big suck ups – joined in. This didn’t happen when Robbie Williams released Sing When You’re Winning. The first single from Harry’s House, As It Was, was garlanded with hosannahs despite the fact that, to a layperson at least, it didn’t seem that different a deal from Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits. A little breezier, perhaps, a little more indebted to the sound of American alt-rock, but both offered sagas of lovelorn hedonism and music audibly modelled on 80s pop by way of the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights: while Sheeran borrowed from Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Styles, like the Weeknd, borrowed from a-ha’s Take on Me. Suffice to say that Bad Habits was critically dismissed as lazy thievery from a man cravenly obsessed with commercial success; As It Was was greeted like the second coming: “a natural move to a more meta and self-referential style of storytelling”, “a fearless leap into a new era”.
This is clearly the rare kind of success that means the contents of Harry’s House are almost irrelevant. It could sound like anything – hair metal, trad jazz, Surgical Penis Klinik’s 1980 EP Meat Processing Section – and still enter the charts at No 1. In fact, As It Was proves a pretty good indicator of its sound. If the studios in which it was recorded contained a mood board, it was clearly covered in pages from Smash Hits, plus a couple of yellowing spreads from Rolling Stone in which everyone sports a beard and a big-collared shirt open to the chest: the lazily swinging rhythm and analogue synthesiser of Daylight represents the moment where Andrew Gold’s Never Let Her Slip Away ascends from oldies radio ubiquity to classic rock influence, with authentically charming results; Cinema’s yacht rock funk comes complete with the none-more-1976 sound of a guitar played through a talkbox, as on Peter Frampton’s Show Me the Way or Steely Dan’s Haitian Divorce. Elsewhere, the album majors in sounds evocative of the mid-80s. As well as As It Was’s clipped rhythms and icy electronic hook, there are booming drums, Prince-y vocal interjections, bright staccato synth stabs and the distinctive bwwwwoing of the fretless bass (played, it appears, by the man who popularised said bwwwwoing in the first place, Pino Palladino). Even the McCartney-esque bass fills and Mellotron of Grapejuice sounds less like the Beatles than an 80s band influenced by the Beatles.
All this is applied to really well-crafted pop songs, polished by Styles and his longstanding co-author Kid Harpoon to the point that pretty much any of them could happily function as a single. It’s an album that, perhaps understandably, suggests an appealing confidence on the part of its authors, a world away from the classic rock cosplay of Styles’s eponymous 2017 debut. Even if you don’t buy the notion of Styles as a genius auteur whose oeuvre warrants comparison with the work of the artists he started his solo career aping, you’d have to concede it sounds like the work of people who know exactly what they’re doing.
Certainly, the lyrics appear to be with a canny understanding of his fanbase. There are more references to taking drugs than you might expect (edibles, pills and lines of coke all make an appearance) and the occasional diversion into bump and grind territory: “If you’re getting yourself wet for me, I guess you’re all mine.” But their main currency involves pledging undying fealty and understanding – particularly when your boyfriend and/or your parents don’t – in a soft voice, close-miked so it sounds as if he’s cooing directly into the listener’s ear: “I just wanna make you happier, baby”; “a bottle of rouge, just me and you”; “if I was a bluebird I would fly to you”. They’re also packed with everyday details that suggest Styles’s life is not unlike that of his listeners, estimated worth of $80m or not: bicycle rides, tea and toast, spilt beer. Even the “jezebel” of Little Freak, by whom Styles is tempted, but rejects – “you never saw my birthmark,” he sings, sotto voce – exudes her tantalising feminine wiles while clad in a “tracksuit and a pony tail”.
You do wonder a little at whether or not these lyrics need the kind of close reading in search of deep meanings they’re subject to in some corners of the internet, just as you wonder at some of the more lofty musical comparisons to which Styles’s work has been subjected and whether the sight of him stripping to his boxers in the As It Was video really “embodies vulnerability in physical form” rather than say, a fit bloke getting his kit off because he knows what side his bread’s buttered on. Nevertheless, Harry’s House is extremely well turned out, ticks a lot of the right boxes and has abundant charm, which makes it a perfect reflection of the pop star who made it.
• Harry’s House is released on Friday 20 May on Columbia Records