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HARRY'S CHANGING "TIMES"

The stratospheric commercial response to Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” (Columbia) isn’t exactly a shock—the lad probably could’ve surmounted the charts with a ukulele jam. What may be taking some people by surprise is the artistry of the track, which instantly blows away any and all boy-band baggage.

“Sign” is a vaulting classic-rock anthem that kicks off with spare piano (which to me sounds like a nod to John Lennon); Styles’ vocal moves from vulnerable rasp to angelic falsetto as he delivers lyrics that hint of our hazardous times. Then the drums and strings and guitars kick in and the thing bursts into the sky like a goddamn rocket. This is a sprawling, ambitious song with a glorious melody and powerful arrangement (hat tip to producer Jeff Bhasker), and Styles delivers it with utter confidence and conviction. It’s a powerhouse performance, and even though the track burns for nearly six minutes, I’ve kept it on repeat.

How will it perform over the long term at radio? Will its current dominance continue? Will this outsize track lash a T-Rex-sized tail over the streaming landscape? I wouldn’t presume to guess. But I will, as a music fan, say I’m delighted to see a superstar with Styles’ reach and influence venture into unexpected terrain and utterly crush it. I’m thrilled he’s made the first big rock single in ages, a yearning, soaring, not the least bit ironic creation reflecting emotional realities that can’t be reduced to emojis.

Columbia’s less-is-more approach with “Sign” is clearly founded on the belief that the music can speak for itself, and then some.

The drums and strings and guitars kick in and the
thing bursts into the sky like a goddamn rocket.

I also dare to hope that young fans enthralled by this heady creation will be led back to some of the great records that clearly influenced it: life-changing music by Bowie, Queen, Lennon and more.

I happen to recall the NSYNC days, when snarky sideline-dwellers snickered about Justin Timberlake’s haircut. When JT launched his solo career and began to demonstrate what he was capable of, even those haters had to fess up. Something similar is now happening with Harry—with “Sign,” he has made art that has to be taken seriously. I, for one, can’t wait to see what else this new direction reveals.

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