I have a confession: When I was a tween, Niall Horan was my favorite member of One Direction.
I'm almost ashamed to look back on that now. Harry was so obviously the only choice. His gender-queer look and love of 60s psychedelia and generally mystical aura should've been apparent to me even then. On the other hand, I was severely in denial about my own bisexuality in those days, so maybe I just wasn't ready to embrace Harry quite yet.
It's taken me a long time to get to the healthy place where I am, stanning Harry Styles and loving people who actually love me back and that sort of thing. Once upon a time, I only wanted people who wouldn't love me back, I thought everybody hated me, and I was slightly in love with Niall Horan.
I'm not exactly sure what was going through my mind during those times. I liked Niall in the vague, floaty way that I liked anyone in those days—only in the abstract, refracted a thousand times through my own self-perception.
Maybe liking Niall was just an effort to fit in. During conversations about One Direction (there were many), I'd merely say "I like Niall" and that was it. I think I picked him because of his hair, which made him look different from the rest of the One Directioners.
Maybe it was because he seemed less egotistical than the rest. In a way, that last one still holds true; Niall feels less pretentious than other members of the former band. Or he did. Sadly, none of this, nor the strength of my lukewarm teenage devotion, could save Niall's new album.
The new album is called Heartbreak Weather. It surpasses regular supermarket pop—generic, shiny, relatively soulless stuff—to become supermarket-during-coronavirus pop: overcrowded, oddly familiar yet disorienting, and mostly empty.
Some songs are more painful to listen to than others. The title track, "Heartbreak Weather," comes complete with a corny 80s-style drum thrash and a bouncy bassline that inexplicably reminds me of fast food. "Small Talk" starts promisingly thick with dreamy reverb, but it builds up to a bouncy chorus that shakes you out of whatever restful state you may have slipped into.
I don't want to compare Niall too much to Harry, but let's contrast the low guitar riffs on Small Talk to the similar riffs on Styles' She. The "Small Talk" riffs sound heavily compressed and packed into a tiny space, whereas the lines on Harry's track sound liberated and oceanic in scope. The whole thing feels like Niall's effort to be Harry Styles, but it comes off like he's wearing his older brother's clothes, trying them on and trying to be hot while he's always been just cute.
The production and songwriting on Heartbreak Weather feel anachronistic, from a former era when songwriting wasn't so nuanced and we took the bus to school. There are hints of squelchy funk that, while not danceable, are far from relaxing.
"Nice to Meet Ya" is an unfortunate track through and through. Its chorus feels too chaotic and overloaded with sound, and the use of autotune is a travesty and a sin. The piano riffs and generic lyrics remind me of some of the performers I've seen at the many, many open mics I have sat through in my life. It's not that it's bad. The piano and songcraft are full of potential and earnest enthusiasm; but this is a major record label album, not the Tuesday after-hours show at Jolene's.
Heartbreak Weather would've fit in better during the 2000s, but music is so fiercely innovative now, and there's just so damn much of it that it's hard to imagine a place for this kind of generic, innocent pop. "Put It On Me" is a nice song, though, one I could imagine coming on the radio as I'm driving around in silence with my mom, or during the "stretching" part at the end of an exercise class. It's suburban, quotidian, from a former era, from another life. Along with the rest of the album, it exists in such brutal contrast to the rest of the current online discourse and the state of the world that hearing it today just feels jarring.
Maybe Heartbreak Weather actually comes from a parallel dimension. Maybe it slipped over from a different timeline in which people are sensible and things are boring, in which disasters are few and far between, in which we pool our resources and use them to take care of everyone like practical people.
In this dimension, Niall probably should have stuck to his original shtick, to the kind of innocence and simplicity that initially drew me to him and that defined his classic tear-jerker "This Town." Instead of trying to create a complex, funky, sexy, multi-genre pop album, Niall could've gone in an acoustic direction, honing his gentle persona into an early-Ed-Sheeran-type of balladeer and eventually graduating to more mature folk.
But that's okay—I forgive him. I forgive everyone. Because what does it matter if an album is good or bad, if it makes people happy? I'm freaked out about the virus, I'm chilling in self-quarantine, it's a Friday night, and I truly hope that Niall never sees this.