This is first among a series of song reviews titled “Ripe Vinyl”. It was penned by Charcoal Masks, who is not a Directioner and never was.
I first heard Harry Styles’ more recent track “Sign of the Times” on a train. The feeling was overwhelming, probably because the circumstances reminded me of the familiar: sitting on a moving train, an elbow on the window grill, windswept hair, et al. Trains have always triggered nostalgia, but the feeling was largely deepened by Styles’ melancholic tunes.
Now, after having visited the video of the song many times and having combed through numerous YouTube comments, I’ve taken a fairly strong liking to the song. Here’s why.
“Sign of the Times’ carries the same title as Prince’s 30 year-old piece (and eponymous album) “Sign o’ the Times”, but borrows little from its musical style. The song, however, takes you back to the likes of David Bowie (Life on Mars/All the Young Dudes) and The Beatles (Hey Jude). Right from the beginning to the end, the mellow and reassuring notes of the piano carry the song through. While Styles’ vocals are captivating and husky, his near-perfect falsetto takes you by surprise. As I type this even while listening to the song, I realise that the bigger surprise drops when the drums and guitar begin and Styles explodes into a burst of vocals.
Watching Styles’ live performance of the same song on The Graham Norton Show will tell you just how involved he is in his music: Styles smiles like a child, enjoying the experience so much; he is almost like a schoolboy who has been let in on a secret no one else knows. His band is having as much fun as him. Everything seems like a return to the warmly familiar. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the first (courtesy YouTube comments) to wonder why it seemed like I’d known the song for a good time, and I believe I won’t be the last.
Don’t get me wrong. “Sign of the Times” is nostalgic and familiar, but it certainly isn’t run-of-the-mill. Styles tries to strike a balance between good old rock and the pop that has claimed the radios and charts; so what if his music, in some parts, echoes the tunes of those that he idolises? Unlike his former band-mate Zayn, who chose to tread the synth/pop path, Styles has tried something like an inspired re-visitation which has flashes of originality, and it seems to have worked fairly well.
The song is not without its shortcomings. “Sign of the Times” can get a little tiresome around four minutes in. The verse doubles up as the chorus, which is only a louder version of the former. There’s an eruption of guitars and cymbals in the first chorus itself, which repeats itself without much change in the verses that follow.
The lyrics offer room for interpretation. While they indicate an apocalyptic/doomsday premise (“Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times. Welcome to the final show. hope you’re wearing your best clothes”), you might be surprised to know that Styles was in fact inspired to write the song when he encountered miscarriage. Some lines hover between suggesting the end of a relationship and the possibility of a reunion (“Remember everything will be alright, we can meet again somewhere; somewhere far away from here.”) But this tone of pensive sorrow is seen even in the other tracks in his album. In “Two Ghosts”, Styles repents, “We’re not who we used to be, we’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me”.
Finally, the official video of the song has Styles taking off and zooming around some really beautiful landscape. He dramatically soars into the sky a la Mary Poppins (did someone say Harry Poppins?) After the release of the official video, the Internet unleashed an onslaught of memes (ah, that blessing, Photoshop). A meme of a flying Harry Styles on a broomstick (“Yer a wizard, Harry”) takes the cake.
Maybe it isn’t the best idea to get carried away and go as far as touting Styles as the “next Bowie”, but you can’t deny that Styles has definitely taken a huge step forward since graduating as Simon Cowell’s protege on X Factor and more recently, since taking a break from One Direction.
Ripe Vinyl is a series of song reviews that will be published every two weeks, spanning across genres. You can contribute too. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to give this a shot.