Harry's House album cover

In "Harry's House," Harry Styles experiments with synths and distorted vocal effects as he shifts away from his typical stadium rock style.

Only six months after concluding the U.S. leg of his 117-stop “Love On Tour,” Harry Styles has refused to slow down, releasing his third album on May 20. The album, aptly titled “Harry’s House,” is an affectionate and intimate — nearing on saccharine — exploration of a romantic relationship. Working with the same producers as his previous two records, Styles steps away from the stadium rock to conceive a breezy, casual soundspace, indulging his fervent fans in a glimpse of what the rockstar may really be like at home.

The album opens with the lively throwback “Music for a Sushi Restaurant.” Styles channels his best Bruno Mars impression, riffing in falsetto while a funky horn section blares in the background. Styles’ childlike lyricism makes its first appearance, quipping “I could cook an egg on you” and “blue bubblegum twisted ’round your tongue.” 

While Styles’ first two albums were renowned for their use of analog instruments to create his signature soft-rock sound, “Harry’s House” displays some much-needed experimentation. Styles sings about encouraging a downtrodden lover over synths on “Late Night Talking” and uses distorted vocal effects on the sultry track “Grapejuice” as the artist finally enters the 21st century.

Fashionable production continues on an album highlight, “Daylight,” where Styles croons that “if I were a bluebird I would fly to” his significant other over a grimy, distorted instrumental track. Although Styles’ sonic choices have become increasingly modern, it never dilutes the album’s intimate, chatty and relaxed tone. Lyrics on the ballad “Little Freak” include: “I spilled beer on your friend / I’m not sorry” and “Tracksuit and a ponytail / You hide the body all that yoga gave you.”

The rise of Phoebe Bridgers and similar indie singer-songwriters have minted a trend of overly specific and plainly descriptive lyrics. Styles adopts this writing style throughout the album, most distinctly in the bridge of the ambient, ’80s-inspired “Keep Driving,” where he sings: “Riot America / Science and edibles / Life hacks going viral in the bathroom / Cocaine, side boob / Choke her with a sea view.” 

While other pop songwriters adhere to broad, general sensibilities to appeal to mass audiences, Styles’ relatability is found in exposing the magnified, explicit details. Through Styles’ presentation of the minutiae of his mundane life, listeners can reflect upon and appreciate the charm of their own day-to-day lives. This sentiment is much-needed in the age of social media when comparing one’s own life to the lives of celebrities has become a daily pastime.

Even though Styles fixates on habitual home life, one can’t help but picture a sold-out arena singing along to the boisterous anthems “Daydreaming,” “Satellite” and chirpy lead single “As It Was.” “Cinema” acts as a shout-out to Styles’ girlfriend, Olivia Wilde, as the title references her prowess as an actress and director.

The album’s deficiencies are the ballads, with Styles’ allure and cheekiness stripped away in favor of being earnestly straight-faced. “Matilda” and “Boyfriends” are seemingly meant to give the listener a moment to breathe, but only succeed in deflating the energy the previous songs cultivated. 

While the music on “Harry’s House” is strong overall and will inevitably be crowned as this summer’s soundtrack, Styles’ artistry remains disappointingly reductive. 

Throughout his career, Styles has continuously reproduced the sound of other artists, watering down their particular sound and never providing his audience with an original artistic vision. His days in One Direction were accompanied by songs that some listeners believe infamously ripped off the group’s “British Invasion” predecessors. Styles’ self-titled debut saw him cosplaying as a David Bowie-type figure, whereas his sophomore album “Fine Line” positioned him as the heir to legacies of Freddie Mercury and Fleetwood Mac.

The subjects of Styles’ pastiche this go-around are more contemporary, making his artistic mimicry even more blatant. On “Harry’s House,” Styles flagrantly appropriates the sounds of 2010s indie-pop/rock. The influence of bands like Phoenix, M83, The Killers, Two Door Cinema Club, Passion Pit and many other indie pop artists are glaringly obvious during the first listen. Styles’ song “Daylight” comes across as a shameless recreation of “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out. “Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit was likely referenced in the studio when Styles made “Late Night Talking.” The distinct instrumental hooks of MGMT and Two Door Cinema Club are shoddily cloned on songs like “Grapejuice.” The album transforms into an almost comical imitation with these references in mind.

While Styles doesn’t directly plagiarize from these bands’ work, it’s still distasteful for him to — yet again — seemingly copy musicians’ signature sounds and parade it as new to his young audience. After three albums of overt imitation, it’s amusing to wonder where Styles will go next on his journey of musical appropriation. Will he drench his voice in Auto-Tune, sing over 808 beats and act as if Kanye West never existed? Or will he forgo his lofty production value, create an album with only a gritty guitar and grungy drum set and turn a blind eye toward The White Stripes? He crafts an ample impersonation of his references — his music is still enjoyable and easy listening — but Styles still lacks a certain fleeting verve or gusto that his inspirations innately possess.

Styles’ music begs the question: Why should we listen to his sanitized caricatures of songs when the originals — which have already stood the test of time — are still available? As an artist with expendable resources and auspicious potential, one can only hope Styles opts for more originality in his forthcoming releases. 

Contact Jake Dodohara at dodohajh@dukes.jmu.edu . For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.