There aren’t many pop superstars left, at least not many interesting ones, and almost none who have recently escaped from boy bands, historically a fertile pop-star breeding ground. When British boy band One Direction, assembled on British talent show “The X Factor” in 2010, disassembled in early 2016, many assumed that beautiful, broody Zayn Malik would be the group’s breakout star. But it was former band mate Harry Styles who stepped into the breach.
That Styles’s first solo album, 2017’s “Harry Styles,” was a nostalgic exercise in folk pop, ’80s new wave and classic rock made sense. 1D, who often experimented with those same textures, were closer to Dad Rock than any other boy band ever got. Styles’s second release, 2019′s “Fine Line,” was his breakthrough — a jubilantly sad extension of those same revivalist impulses, with funk and modified psych-pop thrown in besides.
“Harry’s House,” released Friday, is a mild-mannered, slightly less vivid continuation of same. “Fine Line” was a sexy breakup album, Styles has said, while “Harry’s House” is a sexy new-relationship album. (Styles is dating actress Olivia Wilde, his director on the upcoming film “Don’t Worry Darling.”) Like its predecessors, “Harry’s House” is a lyrically vague offering that sticks to you-know-I-love-you-babe platitudes. You won’t feel as if you know Styles any better when it’s over — a wise move for an overexposure-courting celebrity in a public relationship, but criminally deficient for a would-be confessional singer-songwriter.
Most of the things he admits to enjoying are the usual Internet Boyfriend things no one could reasonably object to: riding bicycles, the occasional edible, sexy time by the beach, hash browns with maple syrup. There are careful references to cocaine, but they seem wedged in, as if somebody in marketing thought Styles should have a vice.
Styles is one of pop’s most self-effacing stars, and the one least likely to center himself in his own narrative. He is deferential to the point of absurdity. He wants only what you want. He cares only about what you care about. On the gorgeous folk ballad “Matilda,” he comforts a woman whose family didn’t love her (“It’s none of my business/ But it’s just been on my mind”). Elsewhere, he worries about her injuring herself (“You stub your toe or break your camera,” he croons consolingly on the modestly funky “Late Night Talking.” “I’ll do everything I can to help you through”). On the gentle “Boyfriends,” he’s a sympathetic onlooker who is just as confused as you are about the things men do (“Boyfriends, are they just pretending?”). Styles’s biggest hit, “Watermelon Sugar,” showed a gift for non-embarrassing sexual metaphors that eludes him here, which is why we’re left with “Cinema” (“I bring the pop to the cinema/ You pop when we get intimate”), the closest the album gets to an outright clunker.
“Harry’s House” shows off Styles’s unorthodox mixture of influences, their threatening edges sanded down. Sometimes it sounds like what would have happened if Freddie Mercury went to Laurel Canyon and wrote a song with A-ha. Other times, it’s a mild soft-rock album that nudges you hopefully with its nose, so eager to please it feels as if a golden retriever made it.
The Harry Styles who performed last month at Coachella in a glittery jumpsuit, singing a shaky version of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” with Shania Twain (who clearly adored him) is not to be found here. “Harry’s House” is pleasant and mild and distinctly unadventurous, calculated to occasionally titillate but never offend. It whipsaws from breezy summer pop to other kinds of summer pop: Without the sheer force of Styles’s charm, which has always exerted a sort of gravitational pull, these songs would float away from him.
Intended to be a mood, “Harry’s House” is often good, always appealing, but infrequently interesting. It’s meant to be background music at a barbecue or summer pool party, but Styles is too good at what he does — and at too crucial a point in his career — for that to be enough.