Harry Styles wants you to think he’s cool. Maybe he’s not addressing the entire world when he poses the question halfway through his third album – “I just think you’re cool,” he admits on ‘Cinema’, before asking, “Do you think I’m cool too?” – but it still comes as something of a surprise. For one thing, it’s an unusually intimate, perhaps even indulgent reference to his dating life from someone who likes to keep his music pretty vague. What’s more, cool doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list of what Harry Styles would like to be perceived as, at least not by the general public. Stylish, sure. Open-minded, certainly. Genre-bending. Most of all: a genuine and good person. You can’t really argue with the universal desirability of these qualities, and Styles has a charismatic way of embodying them. It’s a safe image to maintain. If Styles were a rock star obsessed with validating his own ego, “Do you think I’m cool?” might hit a little too close to home. But he’d much rather stick to his motto of treating people with kindness.
‘Cinema’ might stand out slightly from the rest of Harry’s House, but it doesn’t really deviate from its overriding aesthetic. Styles isn’t trying to be earnestly vulnerable or self-effacing here; you can tell because it’s one of the more funk-leaning songs on the album, with slick production complementing the overtly sensual lyrics. It should be charming in a relatable sort of way, but for some reason, I feel it comes off as frustratingly hollow. Maybe the song would only sound more obnoxious if there was either more of an ironic edge or a greater sentimentality to it, but I kind of wish Styles would push songs like this a bit further in (excuse the pun) one direction or the other. Like almost everything on Harry’s House, it’s satisfying and finely executed but doesn’t show much in the way of personality. Listening to it feels strangely like reading through a magazine profile, with Styles giving you a tour of his home and a list of his favorite things without getting too specific – except maybe an allusion to cocaine use in his kitchen, just to pique your interest – but offering only a hint of his life behind the curtain.
He’s under no obligation to reveal more, of course. For the most part, Harry’s House makes a good case for a looser, generally pleasant iteration of the singer’s style-over-substance approach. Opener ‘Music for a Sushi Restaurant’ is one of the most enjoyable songs in his catalog, with Styles’ vibrant performance and Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson’s plush production overshadowing the clumsiness of lines like “If the stars were edible/ And our hearts were never full/ Could we live with just a taste?” The self-awareness of ‘As It Was’ is probably not what made the song a smash hit – that would be its retro groove and hopeful brand of nostalgia – but it’s what renders it one of the more nuanced and compelling cuts on the album. But the breezier, more groove-oriented side of Harry’s House largely fails to leave a lasting impression, with tracks like ‘Keep Driving’ remaining flavourless despite some mildly distorted guitars adding a bit of bite to the arrangement. Even as Styles takes more risks with his vocals on a song like ‘Daydreaming’, it’s not enough to transcend the one-dimensional songwriting.
When Styles does strip things back to finger-picked guitar and keys, he makes sure that such “emotionally raw” moments are just as palatable as everything else on the album. Unfortunately, the results are also just as mixed. ‘Boyfriends’, co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr., is effective enough as a soothing lullaby that you might not be tempted to question the narrator’s intentions. When he does enter the frame a little more on ‘Little Freak’, it’s to calmly affirm that “I’m not worried about where you are, or who you will go home to, I’m just thinking about you.” (Judging from the song’s production, he also had Bon Iver on his mind.) Of them all, ‘Matilda’ invokes the most empathy for its titular character, keeping the message simple but the feeling strong while calling back to 2017’s ‘Sweet Creature’. When he’s choosing to be either a bit bolder or more subtle than usual, Harry Styles can make impactful music that sounds pretty cool; too often, Harry’s House suffers from slipping into a comfortable but unexciting middle ground. Still, you might wanna have a look inside before he changes up the decor.