For his catchy but charmless second solo album, the pop singer offers a loose-concept record that explores every angle of a breakup through the most pitiful of conversation starters: the weather.
In 2010, a wee Niall Horan decided to test his vocal prowess by auditioning for the British singing competition The X Factor. After performing a neutered rendition of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” the 16-year-old Irishman was met with skepticism from guest judge Katy Perry, who sagely warned, “Likeableness is not gonna sell records.” Nevertheless, she let him advance and Horan was placed in the group One Direction alongside four other baby-faced fellows. As 1D became the biggest pop group in the world, it was apparent that likability (alongside teenage sex appeal, many genuinely good bops, and a rapidly obsessive fanbase) actually sells a lot of records.
After One Direction announced an indefinite hiatus in 2015, Horan spun his role as the band’s guitar-playing Nice Guy into a pleasant-enough solo career. Three years after his folk-pop debut, Flicker, Horan’s biggest challenge as an artist is to harness his ordinariness into being an exceptional everyman à la Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi. So for his second record, the golf-loving, Eagles-obsessed wannabe boomer turned to a loose-concept album that explores every angle of a breakup through the most pitiful of conversation starters: the weather. Parting clouds, rising suns, cinematic rainstorms, Heartbreak Weather has everything, except soul.
It’s quite a let down from the promise of Heartbreak Weather’s lead single, “Nice to Meet Ya.” Borrowing some strained swagger from former bandmate Liam Payne, Horan entices an elusive would-be lover over a dancey British alt-rock vibe. While the track employs some heavy-handed horniness—“I’m gonna take you somewhere warm, you know J’adore la mer,” Horan purrs because French makes everything sexier, oui?—it’s an easy guilty pleasure that is as charming as it is uncool. Unfortunately, the rest of the record never recaptures this little spark.
On the title track, Horan posits that love has a magical, transformational power that can shift the cosmos and make lonely boys feel complete. He follows this disclosure with “Black and White,” a soaring declaration of eternal devotion. “I promise that I’ll love you for the rest of my life,” Horan belts, in between weepy visions of their wedding day and homely golden years. It’s difficult to feel moved by the stakes of these grandiose statements because their meanings are so cliché, and not in the way that feels refreshingly familiar.
After these blasts of sunshine, storm clouds gather. Across the rest of Heartbreak Weather, Horan is stuck in two mindsets: bereft or coltish, either haunted by the memory of a lover, or desperately trying to scrub her away. There’s no explanation for why the relationship worthy of celestial exaltation dissipates other than that the music starts to move from generic anthems into a confusing mix of bleeding-heart ballads and Fleetwood Mac-indebted pop-rock. As on Flicker, Horan is a co-writer on every song and he is joined by Teddy Geiger, Tobias Jesso Jr., Greg Kurstin, Scott Harris, and 1D regular Julian Bunetta. Horan’s songwriting seemingly works only in unwavering extremes. When he’s blue, like on the painfully maudlin “Dear Patience” or the piano-driven breakup ballad “Put a Little Love on Me,” it’s as if the sky is falling. When he’s hurt by a lover, as on “Bend the Rules” he is the picture of gentlemanly restraint. “I pour myself a glass, it won’t be the last/Just our medicine for now,” he forlornly rumbles. (Confusingly, Horan has referred to this song as his “Streets of Philadelphia” moment, a song written in response to the AIDS epidemic.) When he’s frisky, as in say, “Small Talk,” he invokes feral wolves and roaring flames. Over and over again, he goes through the motions without ever really looking inward.
In an interview with Apple Music, Horan said that despite his intention to cover a variety of perspectives, the songs will “probably still sound selfish.” It’s not exactly that Heartbreak Weather is selfish—Horan sounds too adrift for true narcissism—but it’s superficial. The women in his songs are painfully one-dimensional. Rather than defining them at all, Horan and his songwriters reduce them into faceless placeholders tasked with helping the singer move on. On the boogie-down track “New Angel,” a forsaken Horan craves a distraction from his lovesick psyche. “I need a new angel/A touch of someone else to save me from myself,” he croons, “….I’m hoping you get her out of my mind.” Horan repeatedly writes himself into similar emotional pickles, finding solace in the arms of a stranger while fixated with someone else. It’s a valid post-breakup experience, but it simultaneously limits the already narrow role women have on the record.
After all the sentimental rigamarole, it’s tough to come away from Heartbreak Weather feeling any closer to Horan. He spends too much of the record bouncing between sounds and songwriting concepts to feel distinct. But on the record’s closer, the acoustic ballad “Still,” Horan sounds like he genuinely wants, or even needs an emotional reckoning. It’s the realest, rawest moment on the record and a small bit of proof that Horan has the potential to make it on his own.