When Zayn Malik left One Direction in 2015, many took that as an answer to the question everyone had been asking about the boy band ever since they started selling out stadiums: “Which one’s gonna be the Justin Timberlake?” Zayn’s solo debut, Mind of Mine, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 on the back of hazy, aggressively adult R&B tracks with really bad title stylizing — “BeFoUr” and “rEaR vIeW” and “BoRdErSz,” and so on. The album was proof that Zayn had grown up first — he even stopped using his last name — so we applauded his urgency and forged ahead. But Harry Styles, the presumed heir apparent to JT before Zayn jumped ship, has been cooking. And instead of initiating a two-man competition for pop supremacy, his solo debut suggests that it’s probably time to stop trying to fit the members of One Direction into the mold set by the careers of ’N Sync.
“Sign of the Times” — a song that I want to hate so badly because it almost shares a title with a Prince song and couldn’t we have waited longer than a year after his death to start doing this kind of thing? — is the anti-Zayn. Whereas Zayn’s debut single, “Pillowtalk,” is all production, synthesized instrumentals, and stated maturity geared for modern-day radio, “Sign of the Times” is an almost six-minute-long, piano-driven ballad that pulls from ’70s touchstones like Ziggy Stardust and Wings, and mid-2000s Brit-pop bands Snow Patrol, Keane, and the Thrills. It feels old. That’s not a bad thing, but it is unexpected: After leaving a band as massive as One Direction, the urge to separate yourself from it as boldly and clearly as possible must be magnetic. The easiest way for Styles to draw a line between that era and this one would’ve been to break into an entirely different genre — EDM, punk, or, god forbid, hip-hop — a move that’d establish him as a solo artist while eliminating any viability he might have as one. Instead, Styles took a step back, made Mick Jagger his role model, and dropped a song that feels like both an evolution and maturation — without outwardly telling us that it’s that.
I don’t want to say that the rest of One Direction should tuck their summers in, even if Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson are busy being fathers and “Sign of the Times” is a stronger, more fully realized debut than Zayn’s. Rather, it’s interesting to see 1D dovetail like this, each member spilling out of the boy band molding into his own, entirely different lane. As it was even when One Direction was together, fans can latch on to whomever they feel fits their tastes best. No one in 1D is the Justin Timberlake — and no one is the JC Chasez either.
However, one important question remains: Harry, when are we going to see the video for this song?