Reinvention is a word fraught with both risk and reward. It takes an artist with a great deal of bravura and genuine chameleonic capability to perform such a public overhaul of image — and not just in the physical sense. Even then, success is never a certainty, and rather hangs in the delicate balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Commit the former and you’re quickly dismissed to the pits of insincerity (see: Taylor Swift’s transformation from country gal to pop princess, and her subsequent dethroning amidst accusations of lies, deceit, and fake PR relationships). Succumb to the latter, and you’re doomed to a career that “peaked too early”, fading into obscurity to join the leagues of a thousand musicians before you now relegated to the dregs of The Hits of 2007, AKA Spotify’s worst nostalgic playlist.
Strike the happy medium between the two, however, and you’re guaranteed international acclaim, or at least 15 minutes of fame and a two-album deal with Columbia Records. As is the case with Harry Styles, the Worcestershire-born larrikin of One Direction fame whose slow metamorphosis from moppy-haired, acned boyband frontman to adult dreamboat — David Bowie influences and all — has been well-documented by everyone from Pitchfork to paparazzi, to pre-pubescent fans with whole Instagram accounts dedicated to him. Gone are Old Harry’s plaid shirts and department-store chinos (true remnants of a bygone sartorial age); New Harry wears head-to-toe pink suits with Armani loafers, and performs with the flamboyance of those glam rock predecessors he so clearly draws inspiration from. Old Harry is permanently peppy: he’ll charm the socks off your mother and then buy her another pair as penitence. New Harry is — or at least likes to think he is — a rock-star. He eschews convention. He’s a rebel without a cause! And didn’t you hear? He even owns a record player, even if he did buy it from Urban-Outfitters-dot-com.
And so the world has scooped him into their collective palms as if handling a fledgling sparrow who has just left the protective wing of its mother — or in Styles’ case, the safety afforded by granddaddy of British pop Simon Cowell and his musical monolith SYCO Entertainment. An observant One Direction fan might have long sensed this coming. After all, it was Styles who, over the years, had begun to take on a leading role, and grow his hair out longer and longer while the rest of One Direction’s not-so-motley crew still seemed stagnant in their adolescent days. Perhaps in many ways it’s no surprise, then, that the paths pursued by his bandmates have flopped so spectacularly — Zayn’s clichéd bad-boy route, or Niall’s attempt at acoustic, or Liam’s laughably sexed-up rip-off of every millennial hip-hop trend — whilst Harry has become an alternative darling overnight, lauded as a classical icon ushering in a new rock revival.
A quick glance at his self-titled solo album reveals why. As both a boyband apologist and a hater of change, the record is surprising in two regards: firstly, that Harry somehow manages to retain the tender quality that attracted millions to a younger, more innocent version of himself; and secondly, that his sonic shift is not as seismic as his wardrobe makeover might suggest. Interspersed between revolutionary (for boyband standards, anyway) tracks like the old-school “Carolina”, and the loud “Kiwi”, and the concluding “From the Dining Table” — which sounds more at home on an indie folk compilation than it does here — are songs like break-up ballad “Ever Since New York” and lover’s ode “Sweet Creature” which stick to Styles’ formulaic charm. Does the album suffer as a result of these tonal fluctuations? Sure. But it’s also the key to his success: ease listeners into a new sound slowly enough, and they’ll come around.
Of course, such an ease is achieved with anything but. Styles’ new persona is — no doubt — just as meticulously constructed as his former one. But it seems he possesses the charisma and grace to bear the illusion of sincerity to sustain his reinvention where his counterparts couldn’t. And maybe that’s enough, for now.