The 12-track album continues Styles' tour through his musical influences — his salute to rock royalty — and yet also shows signs that he's coming up with his own sound. “Shine, step into the light,” he sings. It is advice he is also taking.
The men of One Direction are each taking their own direction, but Styles' proves the most ambitious ( Take notes, Liam Payne ). He's co-written every song and also adds guitar, dulcimer and supplies backing vocals.
Styles has reunited with producers Jeff Bhasker, Tyler Johnson and Kid Harpoon, who helped mold his sound on his first album. And the singles released so far — the psychedelic foot-stomper “Watermelon Sugar,” the soaring, soulful “Lights Up” and the blissful poppy “Adore You” — are all different and great.
There's also the Queen-ish “Treat People with Kindness,” which is a cheerful, funky slice of '70s, with hand-claps, tambourine and Styles trading verses with a choir. (“All together now!” he asks.) The most challenging song is “She,” which has a Lennon-McCartney vibe, grinding guitar and crazy keys. Lyrically, its a cousin to “Eleanor Rigby.”
Sometimes, the album feels like a game of Guess the Influence. “Canyon Moon”? Bob Dylan. "Golden"? Beach Boys, right? "She"? A bit of Santana. But Styles' references are lighter this time than on his debut. He's less aping his heroes than just using some of their colors.
There are call-backs to his first album. That had the song “Kiwi” and the new one has more luscious fruits — strawberries, cherry and that watermelon. The song “Falling” once again finds Styles alone in bed with wandering hands, where he was unhappily on “From the Dining Table” from 2017.
Love — mostly its absence — is the lyrical bedrock, with Styles showing his lonely, brokenhearted side. “Don't call me ‘baby’ again,” he asks an ex in one song. “Don't call him ‘baby,’" he asks in another. “Cherry” seems to be about his French former flame. “I just miss your accent,” he sings, and the songs ends with a woman's voice cooing in French. (The title may be a joke on "cherie.") “I'm well aware I write too many songs about you,” he writes in the piano-driven ballad ”Falling."
The moody, string-based “Fine Line” ends the album, another song about the push-pull of former flames and broken things. But it concludes with hope: “We'll be alright.” If he keeps making music like this, we all will be.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits