Harry Styles drew from the hazy sounds of Pink Floyd and David Bowie on his debut solo album and bathed in the mellow vibes of ’70s soft rock for much of his sophomore outing, “Fine Line.”
On his third release, “Harry’s House,” the prince of pop has crafted a dazzling spread of sounds, from spunky horns to glistening synthesizers to sinewy bass lines.
Considering his album title nods to Joni Mitchell’s 1975 song “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” some Laurel Canyon ambiance might be expected as well. And there it is, in the gently picked guitar notes (from Ben Harper) and creamy harmonies on “Boyfriends.”
Since exiting the netherworld of boy band mania, Styles has repeatedly proven himself a mature, thoughtful artist. At only 28, he’s experienced the seesaw of tabloid vultures, a budding movie career (he’s already earning raves for his upcoming “Don’t Worry Darling”), fashion bullies and Grammy-level success – navigating it all with charisma and a sheepish grin .
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On “Harry’s House” (out Friday), his lust for musical experimentation somehow never sounds indulgent and his blatant signals to his forebears, whether ’80s new wave or ’70s funk, are always freshly dressed.
Styles’ third effort is indeed a charm. Here are some highlights:
‘Music for a Sushi Restaurant’
Sometimes – OK, often – Styles’ lyrics are inscrutable, and the lead track is the epitome of his cryptic babble (“’Excuse me, a green tea?’ / Music for a sushi restaurant / From ice on rice / Scuba duba dubub boo ”). But it hardly matters because musically, it’s a joyful blast of quirky pop. When a trumpet blazes mid-song, it’s as if Earth, Wind & Fire entered the room. And that’s always a very good thing.
‘Late Night Talking’
Much like with Taylor Swift songs, Styles’ devotees will scour his new material hunting for references to actress/filmmaker and presumed girlfriend Olivia Wilde. Sure, the lines “When nothing really goes to plan / You stub your toe, or break your camera / I’ll do everything I can to help you through” could be directed at her. But let’s focus more on the strutting soul backdrop and singsong chorus that fuel this carefree romp.
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A whiff of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” drives the gliding cadence until the song slinks into a sumptuous chorus. Styles’ voice is altered by light effects, which give them a vintage lilt.
‘As It Was’
The first single from “Harry’s House” might be the most perfect creation of his career. Between the wistful lament of a chorus (“In this world, it’s just us / You know it’s not the same as it was”) belied by blissful synthesizers and lyrics that directly target his ongoing struggle with loneliness, the song is a triumph. Then Styles injects a subtle key change and breaks out tubular bells – and for a floating moment, all is right in the world.
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Fans are already speculating that the sweet, melancholy ballad is informed by Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. Over acoustic guitar and piano, Styles sings in his purest voice, “You can throw a party full of everyone you know, and not invite your family / ’cause they never showed you love / You don’t have to be sorry for leaving and growing up.” Regardless of its inspiration, Styles’ delivery of it is deeply affecting.
Most people probably didn’t have The Brothers Johnson on their bingo card of possible Styles samples. But his commendable infatuation of him with soul continues as searing horns and a scraping high hat anchor the song, which borrows slices of “Ai n’t We Funkin’ Now,” the R&B duo’s minor hit since 1978.
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