The new solo song from the One Direction member Harry Styles appeared and made the waves it was clearly intended to make. The shock was that it made them while facing an entirely different direction. Defying convention — being the self-reflexive need to prove you’re either a tough-guy club banger or an insatiable hornball juiced up on a dopamine cocktail — Styles’ first single from his solo debut is a massive, mournful ballad about this violent age we live in.
If that was the mission, it was successful. While reaching out to older listeners with a mature, epic song structure, and at the same time not alienating the young fans who were going to follow after anyway, “Sign of the Times” is that rare graduation piece that doesn’t ever disqualify itself as a guilty pleasure. It’s not to say that the tune is any less a calculated construct much as any Hot 100 track is. But by cannily understanding how to bridge that gap between older listeners who actually still buy music, and younger listeners who prefer to just stream it (sorry, Ed Sheeran), Styles and management have ensured that people will talk about the track and may actually pay for it too.
Luckily, it is worth talking about, although I take issue with the continual assertion that the song finds him trying to be “the new Bowie.” Such a claim is unfair to both parties. No one would say that if Bowie was still alive, so corralling his memory in seems to be an inadvertent admission of laziness. The track does have a kind of cinematic sweep not unlike “Space Oddity,” but it also nods to the welcomed excesses of Britpop, and particularly Blur. If you can’t hear “This Is A Low” in the DNA of the song, then maybe “Under The Westway.” Maybe Damon Albarn should file a complaint.
Judging from this track and Styles’ brief turns at comedy on a recent airing of Saturday Night Live, it seems like he’s ready to move on. Thanks to “Sign of the Times,” one can at least be assured it will be an interesting spectacle.