When “Sign of the Times” dropped last spring, the internet seemed to lose its collective mind. Was it because the highly anticipated previous solo offering from former One Directioner Zayn met with such a lukewarm critical reception last year? Was it because we were, in fact, living in the first days of our descent into an outdated political hellscape, not unlike the dystopian fiction that’s dominated the pop culture cycles for the past several years? Was it simply because Harry Styles is an undeniable force? Was it because it was just a great song? That answer to the “why” depends on whom one asks, but one thing is undeniable: the album that followed has peppered EOTY lists in a way other former Directioner offerings have not. Despite this, fellow former-Directioner Niall Horan quietly released an album in 2017, a largely acoustic, unexpected effort titled Flicker. And so followed the inevitable question – which was the better album?
It would be very easy to say the Styles record was superior and call it a day – after all, it’s flashy. It’s interesting. It was well written, well performed, and well produced – and it is inescapable. That makes it the easy answer. But as with so many things in life, I’m not convinced that the easy answer is necessarily the right one.
Flicker is, simply put, an achievement. Where Styles’ Harry Styles feels beautifully calculated and observational, every lyric and moment on Horan’s first solo effort feels remarkably personal – and yes, classical – in a way that is seldom achieved in pop music – or any genre, for that matter. Upon listening, it’s impossible to escape the feeling of having been the only person invited to the screening of a heartbreakingly beautiful home movie. Elements of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayer (on his best day) are palpable, achieving a level of intimacy with the listener on each track that Styles only comes close to achieving on his rumored Swift-inspired “Two Ghosts”. In fact, in the context of a world where Flicker exists, one is hard pressed to find any kernel of truth quite as poignant on the Styles record as on any of Horan’s ten track offering.
From the opening note of “On the Loose” – a dancey pop track warning a new suitor about the reality of dating one’s former lover, Horan exceeds expectations. As remarkable a feat it is to be a man in 2017 who manages to write that song without dancing into misogyny or slut-shaming (Horan does neither), even that promising start proves to be an inadequate taste of what is to come. Whether it’s the surprisingly seductive “Slow Hands”, or the brilliant “Seeing Blind” collaboration with Maren Morris, Flicker doesn’t miss a step. The album, however, truly shines in its quietest moments. From the poignant heartbreak on “This Town” or “Too Much to Ask”, to the subtle desperation in the imploring “Since We’re Alone” and “Flicker”, Horan establishes himself as the reigning king of paying homage to what sincerity looks like in modern relationships. “Since we’re alone,” he says, “You can show me your heart.” Instead, he shows us his in a way that was impossible to predict based on his boy-band roots. One thing is certain: this was not the record I thought I was going to hear the first time I hit play.
And yet – the Styles record is fantastic. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with apples and oranges, and it makes more sense to simply reject the premise of the comparison in the first place. Taste is unquestionably subjective, but there does come a point where it becomes useless to compare two things when those things serve completely different purposes. That’s what happened with these two albums. That’s not to say it isn’t a valid personal choice to prefer one to the other, but the “best” qualifier is not a measure of preference – it’s a measure of quality, and of value delivered. And it’s in that frame of mind that I believe it’s too easy to say that Harry Styles made the better album this year. What we have instead is two wonderful albums, from two very different places, from two very different artists, that serve two very different purposes.
When all is said and done, listening to Styles is like watching something amazing happen. You don’t know where it’s coming from, and you don’t know how it happened, but you just know that it is something truly special. Listening to Niall is like listening to something that you’ve already lived. Your heart has broken in the same places. You’ve loved the same way he has. You want the same things he does. With Styles, it’s like witnessing something fantastic, just out of reach – with Niall, it’s like witnessing something real. Harry Styles was inescapable this year. Flicker deserves that chance.