Whole modules at performing arts academies will no doubt be taught about Harry Styles, a star who has negotiated one of the most difficult transitions in music – from boyband to solo artist – with more panache than even successful forebears such as Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams.
There was a little crunch in the gears with his debut album as he got to grips with who he was, as if living up to his surname with a range of different, anti-Directional genres. But he cruised on to a golden Pacific Coast Highway of pop with 2019’s exceptional Fine Line: focused and alert, even as the hazy musical surroundings changed around him.
Since then, splashy shoots for Vogue and Dazed and the launch of his beauty company Pleasing have positioned him as a post-metrosexual arbiter of contemporary manhood: muscular and tattooed but wearing women’s clothes, being fluid to soften old binaries. Some who can remember David Bowie or the New Romantics have rolled their eyes at this – and others have found his outfits just plain clunky – but it is a marker of how narrow mainstream masculinity is that his style undeniably makes him an outlier, and it thrills young fans to see this sort of thing for the first time. Crucially, his music is so well-crafted and instinctive – it now all feels done on the first answer rather than the second guess – that his dress-up feels a part with it.
That sense of freedom to wear, move or sing in any way he pleases suffuses his return on the effervescent As It Was – as does his folding of traditional modes like feminine prettiness and masculine vigour into something of his own.
This is an extremely high-tempo song, and an obvious point of comparison is the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, which also ticks along at 175bpm and has the same sort of earworm instrumental motif. More generally, Styles shares the Weeknd’s sense of a pop artist at the top of their game, omnipotently surfing their own creative juices. And Styles’s climactic “hey!” is very similar to the Weeknd’s own exclamation to round out Blinding Lights’ chorus.
But where Blinding Lights was an explicit homage to a certain neon-in-rain 1980s aesthetic, As It Was is a richer blend: against that 80s-style melody is the rough splash of a real cymbal. The tempo also reminded me of the Strokes’ Hard to Explain, and the song is invested with the bedroom indie-pop production of Gen Z stars like Clairo. Maybe the steady signature backbeat of the War on Drugs is another touchstone (much as it is for an equally handsome male pop star, Shawn Mendes, with his own new single this week, When You’re Gone), and it also feels lit by a Scandinavian light: the glowing softness of that region’s indie-pop artists such as Jens Lekman. It is music to skip down the street to on a spring day, clicking your heels and picking up passing cockapoos for a cuddly spin – and Styles knows it, finishing the video with some Gene Kelly-ish gymnastics.
Ah, that video. Styles’ sheer, objective gorgeousness is of course a big part of his pop star appeal, and elevates his entire endeavour further; watching the video, that sense of freedom is heightened by his very loveliness, a man who seems to move through life on a different track to the rest of us. Perhaps it is a symptom of a culture that prizes beauty so highly, or maybe I just fancy Harry Styles a bit, but he is a thrill to watch.
Lyrically, it is an interesting, gossipy read, an escalation of pop’s current mode of specific, personal storytelling rather than blustery metaphor (perhaps the biggest songwriting legacy of brief Styles squeeze Taylor Swift, and a style done so well by Olivia Rodrigo, Adele and the 1975 in recent years). “Harry, you’re no good alone / Why are you sitting at home on the floor? / What kind of pills are you on?” a friend tells Styles down the phone. “Leave America, two kids follow her / I don’t wanna talk about who’s doin’ it first” is surely about his girlfriend, mother of two Olivia Wilde. The central chorus line, “You know it’s not the same as it was,” suggests it’s about the breakdown of a relationship, heavily backed up by the video, which shows Styles trapped on a treadmill with his partner, then freed for some joyful jumps around the Barbican. Is his relationship foundering?
Equally, “You know it’s not the same as it was” could be a statement of pragmatism – that wondrous, even frightening moment in love where you realise your life is for ever changed. The variously disconsolate and upbeat delivery also keeps you guessing as to his intentions.
The cynical reading is that Styles’s cleverness is in obscuring the meaning just enough so everyone talks about it like this; the more generous one is that he writes in a way to allow anyone to see themselves in his songs. Either way, As It Was is one of his very best.