Track Review: Harry Styles // As It Was

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Buried under the lovelorn sheen of Harry Styles’ music runs a central crisis: identity. From his “long hair don’t care” boyband days to the “do you know who you are?” tagline accompanying Fine Line’s lead single, Styles has spent nearly his entire career in search of the answer.

Poised as the breakout pop star since One Direction’s very beginning, Styles challenged expectations at every opportunity. His debut album was uncommercial and frustratingly unoriginal, aping The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and The Rolling Stones at a time when the musical landscape neglected folk and rock music. Fine Line, in contrast, was a chart-topper (‘Watermelon Sugar’ is incredibly still hanging around the Spotify charts), but even its poppier, more upbeat sound couldn’t disguise the lack of identity in the lyrics. Styles’ personality shined through in brief moments – ‘Treat People With Kindness’, ‘Sunflower, Vol. 6’ – but rarely did listeners get any insight into Harry Styles as a person.

Perhaps we live in an era with different expectations, with singers like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo pouring every intimate detail of their lives into their music. Yet that is what separates the good from the great. Take ‘Ever Since New York’ from Styles’ debut: the imagery of him wandering a bleak, empty New York in the midst of a tragedy is cutting in its humanness. Or similarly, taking a page from Swift’s book, the portrait of dancing under the fridge light in ‘Two Ghosts’. Being under intense media scrutiny since the age of 16, its no surprise Styles is unwilling to bare his soul – but then there remains a disconnect between the singer and the songs.

Since his debut album, Styles has established himself as a fashion icon, trading Gucci suits for lace tops at 2019’s Met Gala and dresses in his now-famous Vogue cover the year after. His disavowal of heteronormative norms is nothing new, thinking back to his own influences such as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, but is also undoubtedly him, fighting the media’s narrative of him as a womanising heartthrob and reinventing himself in the public eye.

Which brings us to today. After two albums of being lost in hallways, New York, daydreams, etc., Styles has dubbed his third album Harry’s House, home at last in a ‘70s blouse and flared jeans. All is not perfect on the album’s cover, with the room sparse and upside-down, but it’s a stark contrast to his years wandering.

‘As It Was’ is unsurprisingly steeped in melancholy and nostalgia, a longing for life before the pandemic. The pandemic has been a reckoning, forcing people to evaluate who they are in a bid to find stability in a rapidly changing world, and it comes through in Styles’ lyrics.

The confessional nature of ‘As It Was’ is in part due to its music. Drawing musical influences from indie pop and bedroom pop artists such as The 1975, Clairo and Future Islands, the song’s ‘80s dance beat and synths perfectly contrast the lyrics, giving Styles the platform to be at his most vulnerable.

In the song’s second verse, Styles is faced with the question “Harry, you’re no good alone / Why are you sitting at home on the floor? / What kind of pills are you on?” Opening up, he comes to terms with himself singing, “Ringing the bell / And nobody’s coming to help / Your daddy lives by himself / He just wants to know that you’re well”. It’s the sharing of that personal moment, of who he is as a person, that elevates ‘As It Was’ to be a truly great song.

While known for his peculiar music videos, the video for ‘As It Was’ is an essential complement to the song. Filmed at the Barbican, it features a staging of Louise Narboni and Yoann Bourgeois’ Les grands fantomes, with Styles and his partner running in circles, giving lines such as “gravity’s holding me back” a more literal meaning. Domesticity is always wrought with conflict, but at least Styles has found the answer to the burning question from ‘Lights Up’: “do you know who you are?”

Words by Stephen Ong


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