The latest One Directioner to go his own way tackles big themes, but the music is filled with the kind of dead-eyed vocal delivery and lazy drumming, strumming, and writing that all pop stars fear.
The years following One Direction’s dissolution have reshaped Louis Tomlinson. More than just rich-people problems, his life has tumbled into real tragedies and triumphs, like the death of both his mother and 18-year-old sister, as well as the birth of his son. Of course, now he wants to tear down his barriers and emerge fresh, raw, and newly sensitive, like the many references to roadblocks and changing on his debut album Walls suggest. Something isn’t right, though. The heart he so desperately wants to present is missing.
Unfortunately, Walls is just as maddeningly uninteresting as its slate grey, cuffed-light-wash-jeans album cover suggests. The appropriately named album opener “Kill My Mind” is a feeble attempt to create stadium pop-rock, droning on with faux bad-boy guitar while Tomlinson limply delivers, “You’re a nightmare on the dancefloor/And you hate me, and I want more.” “Too Young” is an explicit introduction to the album’s running preoccupation with youth; like many of Walls’ folkier moments, the song is flat coffee-shop music. “Habit” features this same mood but adds in sleepy drumming. “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” subtracts the drumming and adds in wistful vocal layering, reminding us that “life gets hard and it gets messed up.” Brian Eno had Music for Airports; this is Music for Your John Mayer Cover Band.
When I was in high school, I owned a limited edition Harry Styles doll and read tawdry fanfiction about our favorite Frankenstein, Mr. Larry Stylinson. This was how you engaged in the fandom of One Direction, and fans knew that every One Direction member had an archetype. Harry Styles was the heartbreaker, Zayn Malik the mysterious (read: ethnic) one, Niall Horan the cute one, and Liam Payne was unlucky enough to receive the nickname “Daddy Directioner.” Tomlinson was the “sassy” one who couldn’t sing, which didn’t add up to much. Now on his own, Tomlinson is left with exactly what he is: someone who received massive success when flanked by other, more interesting people. Walls is filled with the kind of dead-eyed vocal delivery and lazy drumming, strumming, and writing that all pop stars fear. There is no attempt to scrape at the soul, to dig deep. The result is a depressing Xerox of people like Coldplay and Oasis, who managed to make soft Britpop with a little more charm and ingenuity.
Tomlinson is best on “We Made It,” where his imitation begins to sound more like a sincere attempt at invention. The dreamy acoustic guitar sounds like the backdrop to the silliest, prettiest, slow-motion Instagram video of a sunset on the beach. Reminiscing about how he used to “share a single bed and tell each other what we dream about,” Tomlinson captures the essence of youth with one line. You can’t hear the stars in his eyes, but you know that they’re there. The rest of the album could have used this tenderness and lyrical specificity, but it’s mostly abandoned in favor of the pop conventions that Tomlinson pledges himself to, remembering how he used to sing “something pop-y on the same four chords/used to worry ’bout it but I don’t no more.”
It’s difficult to tell whether Tomlinson is even trying to make music different from his time in One Direction. On “Fearless,” he constructs an entire chorus around the question, “Do you still remember feeling young?” like he can’t quite get himself to move on from the golden days. “Perfect Now” is basically a low-quality rewrite of One Direction’s “Little Things,” featuring galaxy-brain observations of an insecure lover like, “You say to me your jeans don’t fit/You don’t feel pretty and it’s hard to miss.” Tomlinson himself calls this song a “kind of” lyrical extension of “What Makes You Beautiful,” One Direction’s legendary breakout single. Try as he may, Tomlinson has not quite progressed from featured voice to solo artist. For all the major changes in his life, his music seems to be stuck in place. You can take the boy out of the boyband, but not the boyband out of the boy.
Buy: Rough Trade
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