Oooh, look, it’s a new Harry Styles song called “Cinema.” Which is so sultry and luxurious, in an ultra-smooth ’80s maximalist sort of way, that it sounds like he’s gliding on a jet ski across a 3-mile-wide waterbed. Which is not the first Harry Styles song to remind me of the Taylor Swift song “Style.” Which, perhaps on account of Harry Styles not having been alive in the 1980s, sounds more like “Get Lucky”–era Daft Punk’s luxuriant odes to ’80s maximalism. (The slinky bass, the strutting electric guitar, the sunglasses-at-night gleam of the keyboards, the pervasive sense of neon.) Which features John Mayer playing some of that electric guitar. Which revolves around the chorus, “I just think you’re cool / I dig your cinema.” Which culminates in the playfully sung lines, “I bring the pop to the cinema / You pop when we get intimate,” a cheeky reference, perhaps, to Harry’s much-rumored famous director girlfriend. Which (I should’ve led with this) concludes its first verse thus:
I guess we’re in time,
If you’re getting yourself wet for me
I guess you’re all mine
When you’re sleeping in this bed with me
All of which is also … boring? Not boring. Not exactly. stately. controlled. elegant. Elegant to the point of sleepiness. OK, it’s a little boring. It’s a marvel of flamboyant mundanity. “Cinema” sounds like John Mayer more than it acts like John Mayer, if you get me. Harry’s House, the weapons-grade-affable pop star’s third solo record released Friday, is Styles’s pandemic album, his domesticity album, his Working on Myself album, his Not-So-Dangerously in Love album. Yes, it is also his ’80s-synth-pop album: I am suspicious whenever everyone seems to agree that a New Song sounds exactly like an Old Song, but the sumptuous (and chart-topping) lead single “As It Was,” with its earworm synthesizer riff and its subtly thrilling sense of forward propulsion, is a gorgeous update of A-ha’s “Take on Me”; you can picture a perfectly sketched Harry thrashing back and forth in a narrow hallway, trying to turn himself back into a real boy. I dig the mellow choreography and the brash red overcoat, too.
“I realized that that home feeling isn’t something that you get from a house,” Styles explained in April. “It’s more of an internal thing. You realize that when you stop for a minute.” What he’s saying here is not quite as revelatory as the fact that he said it during a cover story for Better Homes & Gardens. Harry’s House, produced mostly by his longtime solo-career cohorts Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, goes down so smooth, and is so committed to leaving no unpleasant aftertaste, that it’s occasionally in danger of leaving no taste at all. The opening track is a peppy canned-funk jam called “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”; the first words out of Harry’s mouth are, “Green eyes, fried rice / I could cook an egg on you.” The bumptious bass line pops. The staccato horn riffs sizzle. But it’s all impeccably lit without generating much heat; Styles sounds like a hyper-talented guy who knows his Prince records, but he thinks the most important part of the Prince song “Starfish and Coffee” is the descriptions of the food.
And so, on an extra-sedate little tune called “Keep Driving,” you get all the home-feeling menu planning you can stand: “Maple / Syrup / Coffee / Pancakes for two / Hash brown / Egg yolk / I will / Always love you.” I have grown quite fond of the stylish little cracks in Harry’s voice, the fraying edge of his falsetto, but this is a song that veers toward the snoozier end of British soft rock (more Keane than Coldplay), and it all works so effectively as gentle background music that it took me five listens to notice that one of the world’s biggest pop stars sings the words “side boob” and “cocaine” back to back. This is right after he sings “life hacks going viral in the bathroom.” This is right before he sings “choke her with a sea view,” soon to be followed by him singing “Moka pot Mondays.” All of this is agreeably baffling and tremendously charming and done in exquisite taste, as befits a guy who brought out Shania Twain when he headlined Coachella a couple weeks back. But I do wish he’d taken the prerogative to have a little more fun.
It is worth noting that this guy’s records have a way of slowly and inexorably growing on me. Harry Styles, from 2017, was an explicit play for singer-songwriter gravitas that gave the world both the tremendous slow-burn torch song “Sign of the Times” and the cowbell-driven semi-sleazefest “Only Angel.” (Actually, I listened to Harry Styles and 1996’s Sheryl Crow back to back, which explained a whole hell of a lot.)
Fine Line, from 2019, is probably still my favorite: The brute-force repetition of the blockbuster single “Watermelon Sugar” never quite did it for me, but that record’s quieter moments—the gently fingerpicked “Cherry” and the tightly wound piano jam “Falling ”—are aging splendidly. Like any boy band superstar gone solo, Styles has always been eager to prove his mettle as a Real Artist, even if he’s always been shrewd about the fact that a boy band’s artistry is as real as anybody’s. Harry’s House may indeed prove to have hidden depths, but at first contact it’s all gleaming surfaces with not much to cling to. The catchiest jams here (see the synth-pop grandeur of “Late Night Talking”) sound like Bruno Mars with less glitz, and the most coherent lyrical statements (“If I was a bluebird / I would fly to you / You’d be the spoon / Dip you in honey so I could be sticking to you”) might sound better over the breakfast table, if not on top of it.
I can just tell which songs are gonna grow on me, though. The delicate “Little Freak” mixes more fingerpicked guitar and sumptuous keyboards to slyly insinuating effect, and Harry’s beguiling habit of offering rich lyrical detail with no context adds to the mystique: “Did you dress up for Halloween? / I spilled beer on your friend, I’m not sorry / A golf swing and a trampoline / Maybe we’ll do this again.” And “Matilda” goes even quieter to hit even harder, with a slick acoustic-guitar riff giving way to some gentle grand-piano chords. Harry’s cracked falsetto kicks into overdrive as he tastefully sketches out a vague but affecting portrait of trauma and recovery: “I know they won’t hurt you anymore / As long as you can let them go.”
Harry Styles has a way of making you root for him, and root for whoever he happens to be rooting for. His empathy is an underrated element of his star power, and if he risks coming off a little corny at times, so be it. (“Boyfriends / They think you’re so easy / They take you for granted / They don’t know they’re just misunderstanding you,” begins the song called “Boyfriends.”) The sumptuous and slightly horny domesticity of Harry’s House is not exactly electrifying, but it’s winsomely uncommon, as aspiring blockbuster pop albums go. It’s easy to roll your eyes at a sleepy little tune called “Grapejuice,” which is about, uh, wine. “There’s never been someone who’s so perfect for me, / But I got over it and I said / “Give me something old and red” / I pay for it more than I did back then,” he croons, and he means the price of the bottle more than the severity of the hangover. But if you don’t come to this album expecting a total rager, it’ll get you pleasantly buzzed all the same.