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07th Apr 2017

Admit it: Harry Styles’ new song is actually pretty damn good

No one expected a six-minute ballad about the end of the world, but it's here and it's good

Rich Cooper

Full disclosure: I’ve always liked One Direction.

I was a fan ever since their first single What Makes You Beautiful, a summery pop blast that forced rock dullards into the dilemma of wanting to point out that it nicked the guitar riff from Summer Nights, but not wanting to admit that they knew or cared about the musical Grease.

You had to take 1D’s output with a pinch of salt: yes, they were a manufactured pop group funded by Simon Cowell – Oh, you think an X Factor band are shit? Tell me again about how One Direction aren’t real music and how *looks at garlic mayo-smeared ‘Oasis Live at Knebworth’ t-shirt* …never mind – but even in that particular sphere of evil there are definable levels of quality, and 1D were right at the top.

But alas, One Direction are no more. Zayn has dropped his album, full of songs about how goddamn horny he is. Niall released some acoustic thing that honestly could have been written by a hay bale. Liam and Louis have both had babies, the latter hooking up with Steve Aoki on Just Hold On (that’s Louis, not his baby, I think).

That leaves us with Harry Styles, teenage wet dream-meets-King Charles spaniel. He’s making his acting debut in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but until today we’d heard nothing in the way of music from Styles.

And here it is: Sign of the Times.

Sadly, although perhaps thankfully not a cover of the Prince classic, Styles has gone against the pop grain and instead of releasing a three-minute 30-second club banger has opted for a six-minute power ballad about the end of the world, and you know what? It’s really pretty damn not too bad, actually.

The One Direction lads are the Goldman Sachs of the music industry: they’re just too damn big to fail. Styles could have released a full four-movement symphony of percussive hand farts and it would still be number one, but he wisely chose to put out an enjoyably epic song about “the final show”, “breaking through the atmosphere” and “running from the bullets”.

The comparisons to Bowie are obvious and a little reaching; it does sound a bit like Life on Mars but not that much. If Sign of the Times is guilty of aspiring towards anything it’s the middle of the road – you’ll be hearing this on Radio 2 as much as Capital – but just because you’re straddling the fence doesn’t mean you can’t do it well. Bruce Springsteen mainly sings about junctions and welding, but he does it like a poet.

Styles obviously isn’t in those leagues yet, but Sign of the Times is clearly an attempt to peg him as an Artist, not just a pop star. The vocals are strong and showcase an impressive control of range of and tone. The track appears to have five different co-writers so it’s hard to judge Styles as a songwriter, but certainly as a collaborator, he’s turned out a decent piece of work.

People are obviously going to dick on this because of who Styles is and the fanbase that follows him, but those are the kind of people who think that rock music needs saving and that, inexplicably, Kasabian are the band to do it. This is better than Kasabian, and that’s the least you can say.