Harry Styles new song 'Sign of the Times' review: Bowie nods aren't enough to move him out of One Direction territory

Despite the hype it seems the former One Direction member and his team are reluctant to jump into full-rock territory

Click to follow

Of all the former One Direction members, Harry Styles’ solo debut has been the most anticipated since Zayn Malik released his album MIND OF MINE in 2016. 

Premiered on BBC Radio 1 with his best mate Nick Grimshaw, the track opens to plodding piano chords before Styles opens on a Bowie-style vocal lament.

It becomes quickly apparent that while many (this writer at least) were hoping to be impressed by something altogether more fast-paced, Styles and his team have gone with the traditional piano ballad as a means of introducing his solo work.

Co-writers and Styles’ label have spent the past few months waxing lyrical about how different a direction he’s taken since the band split off for their respective new projects, but is ‘Sign of the Times’ really that different?

Working with producer Jeff Bhaskar [Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Rolling Stones] suggested that he would find the perfect balance of the rock music he clearly idolises and the pop that dominates the radio. 

“You can’t bribe the door on the way to the sky/You look pretty good down here/But you ain’t really good,” Styles sings, and that's not even the worst lyric. As in, it's not offensively bad, but it isn't much of a step-up from the insipid lyrics he peddled as a former boyband member.

Five minute and 42 seconds as a running time feels absurdly self-indulgent; showbiz columnist Dan Wooton claims this length would be ‘commerical suicide’ for any other artist which seems a fairly redundant thing to say given how One Direction fans will obviously never allow that to happen - it's literally the only song with a shot at knocking Sheeran off his No.1 spot on the charts.

While there are plenty of nods to the likes of Queen, Bowie, and Bruno Mars track ‘When I Was Your Man’, he's appropriating those artists rather than coming into his own - the feeling by the end of ‘Sign of the Times’ is that he listened to ‘Life On Mars’ once too often before heading into the studio. 

Style’s vocal work is what redeems this track. Alternating between a tender, slightly husky croon to an impressive falsetto, a lack of band members to compete with allows him to show off what was certainly one of the better voices of the group. 

But the reason Malik’s effort worked so well is because he broke off from the tween pop and sickly ballads that One Direction peddled and produced a slick, mature pop album that was miles apart from anything he’d done before. 

Those glam rock influences in the guitar and intro certainly suit Styles’ personality, and this is a far more confident release than songs released by his former bandmates (Malik not included). But it’s going to take something bigger than this one track to assert Styles as a serious artist... whatever his team and his best mate say.