It’s a sign, all right: Harry Styles begins building his pop empire

In a twist we never could have seen coming during the “Up All Night” era, Harry Styles is officially the last member of One Direction to release a solo single in the form of zeitgeisty builder-upper Sign of the Times. Fingers crossed it isn’t the final nail on the 1D coffin — my heart is pinching as I write this — but if we’re talking promise, it’s definitely there.

Continuing on the path of vocal dominance paved for him when Zayn Malik exited the biggest boy band in the world, Styles has released a single that’s immediately compelling, a move from bubblegum pop to, well, contemporary pop, the kind of piano-driven ballad that would’ve been all the rage on MTV when it was still killing radio stars. The kind that literally and figuratively makes a statement. The kind, even, that gets comparisons to Bowie, but hasn’t quite gotten there just yet. A far cry from the pleasant airiness of songs he had written for One Direction, but with the same amount of catchiness and definitely more conviction.

The best pop stars are able deftly and effortlessly combine accessibility, a distinct image, and an enigmatic energy that makes people want to figure them out and keeps them coming. Styles appears to have gotten the formula down. You see it on his Twitter, where he combines slightly cryptic trains of thought with the ever-personal signoff of “H.” You see it when he’s photographed walking down a street with fish and chips looking stoic yet approachable in an outfit that’s equal parts neat and disheveled. You see it on the cover art for Sign of the Times, on which his back is turned to the viewer, and he’s surrounded by a vast, deep red horizon.

They told me that the end is near, he sings in one of the choruses. We gotta get away from here. We beg to disagree.

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