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Something's Up With Harry Styles's Vibe

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So much music exists to provoke bold emotions—ecstasy, amazement, deep blues. Other music conjures pastel feelings, soft and in-between. For example, much of Harry Styles's third album, Harry's House, imparts the mild joy that one might get from completing a list of chores. Some songs spark the regret of failing to book the ideal dinner reservation. Over multiple listens, another sensation, like faint indigestion, may occur: concern.

The 28-year-old Styles is one of our era's most dependable stars, the kind who can book 10 nights at Madison Square Garden. Charisma and preexisting fame explain some of this success, but he has far outrun his charming former bandmates in One Direction. Three albums into a solo career, Styles has shown a knack for groovy, rock-inflected sing-alongs that could have come out anytime in the past 50 years. Yet Harry's House also hints at something modern—a vague cheerfulness that isn't escapist so much as it is dissociative.

One Direction's hits entertained with the simplicity and bounce of Sunday cartoons, but Styles's first two solo albums strove to convey adult sophistication with vintage guitars and psychedelic harmonies. Paired with a nonbinary-ish, scarves-and-baubles fashion makeover, this brand reset successfully expanded his appeal. In April, he headlined Coachella with a whirl of Mick Jagger-inspired shimmying across a sparse set. I stood near some dudes, maybe in their 40s, who had overcome their skepticism of Styles by the concert's end: This pop kid, they marveled out loud, could really rock. A month later, I myself remember very little about Styles's performance other than him, at one point, stepping aside for his guitarist to wail a glorious solo.

For Harry's House, Styles has said he wanted to move away from heavy referentiality. The palette is still retro—but largely because it draws from '80s synth pop, which is already a common contemporary touchstone. The bubbling keyboards and funky progressions of the opener, "Music for a Sushi Restaurant," may conjure memories of Oingo Boingo—or recent songs by Charlie Puth and John Mayer (the latter of whom plays guitar on two Harry's House songs). But Styles's takes on new wave—and his forays into folk and Brit-pop elsewhere on the album—do have a distinct flavor. It is that strange Styles feeling: amused, ghostly, intensely un-intense.

Partly that feeling stems from his vocal style, which is defined by phone-operator calmness, pillowy multitracking, and melodies that move sort of like how Winnie the Pooh speaks. Part of it, too, is from smudged instrumental tones and percussion that patters like drizzle. Then there are Styles's lyrics. Though about such classic topics as making out and breaking up, they tend toward bits of mysterious imagery that don't quite make a full scene. You hear of bike rides, swimming pools, and ice cream. You also hear of disrespect, toothaches, and cocaine. (He sings of the latter so often that it feels like a joke—what on earth does someone as mellow as Styles sound like on stimulants?)

Many pop songs imply some story happening just off-screen, but for Styles that sense of disconnection is the point. He's dazed, but he's not oblivious: In the corners of the songs, unsavory things loom. A few passages in Harry's House—often when his singing speeds up into a "We Didn't Start the Fire" litany—make this dynamic explicit. "Tea with cyborgs / riot America / science and edibles" goes part of "Keep Driving," a song about one's eyes on the road in spite of strange things in the side mirrors. On "Love of My Life," Styles suggests an afternoon walk and notes, "We don't really like what's on the news, but it's on all the time."

In an era when autobiographical songwriting is the norm, Styles also stands out for his curiosity about other people. Against chiming acoustic guitar, Styles comforts a girl fleeing her toxic family in "Matilda." "Nothing about the way that you were treated ever seemed especially alarming 'til now," Styles sings in a manner that seems designed to, still, elicit no alarm. On "Boyfriends"—a bit of choral folk that evokes Peter, Paul and Mary—he rues male-pattern relationship flakiness, of which he himself has no doubt been guilty in the past. Both songs are admirably empathetic. Both regard some screwed-up situation with an Oh well, you'll be fine smile before drifting into the mist.

For an anxious generation, the appeal of pleasantly numbing pop hardly needs explanation. Yet Styles's music is connecting surely, too, because of its beyond-his-years, can't-quite-log-off weariness. Harry House's smash-hit single, "As It Was," first seems like just a trifle of jingling keys and simpered hooks. Listen again, though, and you may discern a sort of gravity to the song: a downward droop to the notes, the words, the vibes. Styles has said the track was partly inspired by realizing that the pandemic had irrevocably changed the world—our past selves are gone forever. Addressing a crushing truth from a cozy remove, the song works so well that it's scary.

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