If you were looking for an early frontrunner for song of the summer, “As It Was”, the first single off of Harry Styles’ third album, Harry’s House, is a strong contender. The sonically upbeat and synth-drenched song, which is having a real moment on TikTok, initially feels like the kind of tune you’d want to blast over the car speakers and belt out with friends.
But then you look a bit deeper — at lyrics like “Answer the phone / Harry, you’re no good alone / Why are you sitting at home on the floor? / What kind of pills are you on?” — and it’s clear that the song’s content and its sound stand in contrast. That disconnect, that kind of de-familiarization of the summer pop hit, gets at the core of what Styles is exploring in Harry’s House. The singer/songwriter has revealed that his third solo outing is his most personal.
In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, Styles discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to really look at himself, to take stock. He notes that he’s always changing — everyone is always changing — and sometimes you’re just not the person people want you to be anymore. It’s not as it was, so to speak.
Styles approached writing the lead single that way. “You don’t always get to realize [when] something happens… and [then you look at the finished song], and you get to decide whether it’s devastating or brilliant,” Styles explained. “And [then you] accept the fact that it’s probably both.”
The title track on Styles’ previous album, Fine Line, is also the last song on the album. The song feels softer than others on the album — and more raw. And it ends with the haunting refrain, “We’ll be alright / We’ll be alright…” That vulnerability and reflectiveness continue in Harry’s House, making it a perfect follow-up album.
From Fine Line to Harry’s House
Although it hit Spotify (and shelves) in December of 2019, some of Fine Line’s seven singles came to define 2020. Lodged somewhere in our playlists — alongside Christine and the Queens’ “People, I’ve Been Sad,” Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” and the entirety of Taylor Swift’s folklore — were hits like “Adore You,” “Golden” and the Grammy-winning “Watermelon Sugar.”
Songs off Styles’ eponymous debut solo record — like the classic rock-influenced “Sign of the Times” — became big hits. But Styles was still finding his footing as an artist outside of the boy-band sensation that was One Direction. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, the musician discussed the ways in which music that’s beloved by women and girls is often devalued, or how those artists making that music are dismissed.
“Music is something that’s always changing. There’re no goal posts,” Styles said. “Young girls like[d] the Beatles. [Are] you gonna tell me they’re not serious [music lovers]?” Styles went on to say that teenage-girl fans are honest: If they like you, they show up — and “they don’t act ‘too cool.’” After all, as Styles points out in the interview, it is called “pop” music — short for “popular” — for a reason.
Admittedly, before Fine Line, I didn’t think I’d fall head-over-heels for Harry Styles’ music. An homage to ‘70s-era music in many ways, Fine Line borrows elements from a multitude of genres and musical styles — progressive-pop, soul, folk, psychedelic pop and funk, just to name a few. From the catchy pop hits mentioned above to the softer, somber and more reflective songs like “Cherry,” the titular song, and “Falling,” Styles really hits all the right notes.
I wasn’t alone in soundtracking the early days of quarantine with Fine Line. “Way to go, H,” Stevie Nicks tweeted of her friend’s album. “It is your Rumours.” Hey, if Stevie says Fine Line is on par with Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 masterpiece, that says a lot. And it also puts a lot of pressure on Styles’ follow-up, Harry’s House. However, Styles admits to Lowe that he isn’t feeling that pressure — and hasn’t since he pulled back and just let “Watermelon Sugar” find its way.
Harry’s House: Job Aside, Who Is Harry Styles, Really?
In the Apple Music interview, Styles says he approached the making of Harry’s House in a similar way to Fine Line. Neither of the albums are particularly “commercial”; even his first solo album, which leans heavily into classic rock and pays homage to some of his favorite musicians, didn’t feel like the typical pop album a former boy-band member would put out.
“Something in doing the tour [for the first album] and people coming and dancing and having a good time, made me feel like, ‘Okay you just want me to make what I want to make,’” Styles said. He shared that, while in One Direction, he “emotionally coasted” and, for a long time, his happiness felt so dependent on a song or album or concert’s success.
Since 2010, making music has been a nonstop pursuit for Harry Styles. At first, he recalls, you miss a few birthdays, and then it becomes the norm, and people expect you won’t be able to come. “For a really long time, I didn’t really know who I was if I didn’t do [music]. And that’s really scary,” Styles says. “If this ends… — ” And, then, Lowe interjects, finishing Styles’ sentence for him: “What [are you] coming home to? Because [you’ve] been away for 20 years.”
Coming Home to Harry’s House
Some tracks on Harry’s House lean heavily into the synthy ‘80s feel, while others have darker and more somber edges. Regardless of the mood, each track feels just as delicate — in that way great art feels when the metaphorical puzzle pieces have been arranged just so. Maybe even more so than on Fine Line — a no-skip album in my book — Styles finds a real groove. There’s such an ease, an assuredness. It’s no wonder this is the album he’s most proud of, that feels most “finished.”
Aside from “As It Was,” there are quite a few standout songs. You’ll immediately want to dance to the horn-and-bass pep of the opening track, “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” as well as the effortlessly cool funk of “Cinema.” Both songs feel like echoes of Prince; not only do they have a pulsing energy to them, but they’re also bold and humming with an easy confidence — “Am I too into you?” Styles asks in “Cinema”; “Because I love ya, babe — in every kind of way,” he belts in “Sushi.”
“Late Night Talking” feels like an indie cover of an ‘80s pop anthem, in the best way, while “Grapejuice” is a bit like a Paul song off of a later Beatles record. If you’ve ever stared at the sky until you were blinking away sunspots, “Daylight” is a bit like that — irresistible and somehow dreamy, despite the harm.
And then there are some of the more tender, storyteller songs. “Boyfriends,” which Styles performed at Coachella, is a very self-aware look at what it means to see a friend in a toxic relationship. “Matilda” is perhaps the most painfully intimate in its sadness, but also in its expression of love. Here, Styles sings beautifully alongside an acoustic guitar: “It’s none of my business, but it’s been on my mind.” Like a friend giving you the kind of hug that feels like a love letter, he tells the listener that they don’t owe an abusive family anything.
I’ll probably keep the whole album on repeat all weekend. But if you want my pick for “on repeat the most” or “Spotify Wrapped contender,” it’d be “Little Freak.” It feels both fresh and familiar; surprising yet inevitable. This reflective, honest song captures the perspective we gain as we grow older — all while holding onto a kind of sweet sadness; a desire to brush up against the unrequited without actually trying to hold it.
Styles sings, “I disrespected you / Jumped in feet first, then I landed too hard / … You never saw my birthmark” before flowing into a perfectly wistful chorus of, “I was thinking about who you are / Your delicate point of view / I was thinking about you / I’m not worried about where you are / Or who you will go home to.”
After hearing this album in full, I’m not worried about Styles, either. Despite the ups-and-downs of life, he’s clearly — and finally — at home in Harry’s House.