If you come to the first track of Louis Tomlinson’s debut album as a solo artist with no prior knowledge of the singer, his affection for Oasis sounds much more potent than his history as a member of One Direction. Noel Gallagher once asked, “Does anybody give fuck about what any of these current pop stars are up to? Who gives a shit what fucking One Direction do?” It’s unclear quite how this Gallagher-inspired (and approved, apparently, since Noel agreed to share a co-writing on the ‘Acquiesce’-aping title track) record responds to that query, but Tomlinson doesn’t seem to hold a grudge.
He was always the quiet one in the band, looking the part and playing it adequately, but standing a couple of steps back while Harry or Liam belted out the high notes and led the singalongs. Tomlinson didn’t want One Direction to split up, and is the last of the five boys to release his first solo record. But what could be tinged with resentment and grit – both from being effectively abandoned, and taking notes from the grumpier of the two Gallaghers – is actually just quite pleasant.
There are two ping-ponging moods on ‘Walls’, pulling Tomlinson in, well, two directions now. There’s his past as the pop singer, which results in a handful of sweet, simple nostalgic tracks, and his past even further back as a kid from Doncaster who was really into Britpop.
‘Kill My Mind’ kicks things off with a thick northern accent and a surprisingly provocative swagger, welcoming a return to Tomlinson’s first loves – but it’s quickly followed by ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart’ which, as a straightforward, inoffensive pop song, cements the split personality of the album. The whiplash is potent, the album’s best track leading into one of the worst.
It’s surprising, actually, that there’s not more abrasive material here, considering the painful past few years Tomlinson has grappled with. His mother passed away suddenly of leukaemia at the age of 43 in 2016, and his then 18-year-old sister suffered a drug overdose last year. He now looks out for his three other younger sisters, as well as a four-year-old son. You’d forgive him for sounding a bit angrier, the material here more soul-bearing.
True, there is a prominent sense of pain on ‘Two of Us’, which, if a bit syrupy instrumentally, is a piercing personal ode to his mother. “You’ll never know how much I miss you / The day that they took you, I wish it was me instead,” he sings. Louis Tomlinson has sung a lot of ballads in his life, but none have sounded this raw.
Musically ‘Walls’ is a largely conservative album; it’s primarily guitar-led and rarely experiments. His former bandmates all played around musically – Zayn embraced R&B, Harry turned to ’80s power rock, Niall found folk and Liam just threw everything he’d ever heard at the wall – but Louis sticks to what he knows. It’s notable that he’s the only member of one Direction still signed to Syco.
The album is padded out with a string of forgettable – though not unenjoyable – acoustic whimsies. ‘We Made It’ is a wistful look back at the past, lyrically evoking Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ and musically containing hints of Busted circa 2002. ‘Too Young’ and ‘Always You’ operate in a similar vein – they’re full of open-hearted compliments to a girl from a simpler a time, channelling the romance of 1D’s ‘Little Things’.
Tomlinson played a considerable part in One Direction’s songwriting process, with 39 credits on the band’s 96 tracks. His ear for a digestible hook shines, but he’s not much of a wordsmith – often he’ll just sing the song’s title over and over again (see the title track and ‘Defenceless’). Try Googling some of his lyrics: it can take several pages before his name crops up.
But the album’s Oasis-imitating title track indicates his headstrong ambition, the neat major-minor key changes just about sophisticated enough to pull at your heartstrings. He’s perhaps taking the time to find himself properly before launching into a boisterous future. He may be looking back on what he loved – both the history he helped make and the one that shaped him – before rebuilding something new. There are the foundations here for a rewarding future.
Release date: January 31
Record label: Syco