Harry Styles has sustained his status as the world’s “It boy” for a decade without really seeming to try. The artist who rose to fame as one-fifth of the X-Factor-formed boyband One Direction rarely posts to social media (a recent tweet was to a fan joking about missing therapy to go to his next tour. “Go to therapy,” Styles wrote. “It’s important. I’ll wait for you.”). In interviews, he comes across as unfailingly polite and sincere.
He’s serious about music, too – a rock geek who in a recent Rolling Stone interview rhapsodised about his heroes Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac and Van Morrison. His yet-to-be-announced second album was recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in Malibu, where Styles and his band did mushrooms, lay on the grass and listened to Paul McCartney.
This immersion in a kind of lifestyle many of his heroes once led could come across as contrived if it weren’t for the fact that Styles’s new music stands on its own (His self-titled debut solo album dipped, not so much a toe as the whole foot, into his impressive pool of musical influences, and perhaps became too submerged. As good as it was for a first effort, his own identity often felt lost amid the myriad rock ’n’ roll tropes).
“Lights Up”, by contrast, is Styles’s most assured song to date, and the lead single for an album Styles has described as “all about sex and feeling sad”. Accompanied by a video in which Styles dances at a bacchanalian beach party attended by a sweaty group of beautiful people, the song – his first in two years – is a piano and guitar-based track drenched in California Dreamin’ vibes and loaded with psychedelic grooves. His vocals are surprisingly airy compared to the sharper delivery of earlier cuts; if anything he recalls his former bandmate Zayn Malik’s cool R&B tones. While he’s hinted that this new music is break-up inspired, you could easily interpret lyrics such as “Lights up and they know who you are…. Do you know who you are” as a comment on fame, or else perhaps his embracing of his own identity. Styles is asking the questions on this new track, but his self-assuredness suggests that he already knows who he is.
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