When Harry Styles returned with his debut album, a year after One Direction went on hiatus, it was a swerve into glam rock. Filled with juggernaut songs – channelling ‘Benny and the Jets’ through the wonky honks of ‘Woman’ and documenting hotel room sad-wanks on ‘From the Dining Table’ – it was a collage of its creator’s ’70s-leaning tastes.
Thanks to tinny space effects, ‘Carolina’s slinking and synthetic violins, and the melodrama of the record’s stonking ballad ‘Sign of the Times’ it was also great fun. When Styles played Hammersmith Apollo in 2017, he was markedly different, able to move away from the obvious constraints of a carefully choreographed stadium production. Instead, he tripped over actual kiwis that had been flung onto the stage, and chatted away like he was in his mate’s living room.
The first glimpse of Styles’ second record is another departure. Though it still has its flamboyant moments – when a trope of vocalists back Styles up with beaming encouragement to “shine!” for instance – ‘Lights Up’ treads more gently.
Instead of slathering on the distorted layers of guitar, this is less Fleetwood Mac and more early Justin Timberlake, and the brilliantly-over-the-top pastiche of earlier material makes way for something breezier.
Styles has previously told Rolling Stone that he’s mainly writing about “having sex and feeling sad” these days – this first taste doesn’t appear to fit into either camp. ‘Lights Up’ feels like a vaguer song about identity, and the relief that comes from being seen by the world as who you really are. “Lights up, and they know who you are,” he asks, “do you know who you are?”
Whether Styles is talking about his solo career, learning to enjoy being alone again after a messy break-up, or addressing the constant speculation that revolves around fame remains to be seen. Either way, ‘Lights Up’ handles the sheer excess of ‘Harry Styles’ with a lighter touch. It’s an intriguing taster of things to come.