There will be a curiously late 90s/early 00s feel to the top end of the UK album chart this coming Friday, if the current midweeks are anything to go by. Not least because of the spectacle of a George Michael album currently leading the way to be number one (albeit a heavily repacked one), but of the sight of two former members of very successful pop bands slogging it out for the top spot. All it’s lacking now is an ‘are-they-aren’t-they’ red-top media circus with one of the artists conveniently starting a relationship with the 2017 equivalent of Chris Evans (that’s the radio DJ, people born after 1993, not the actor), a la Geri Halliwell. But that’s enough about Taylor Swift.
No, one suspects that Niall Horan won’t ever feel the need to stoop to such levels, even though his record is set to debut in second place (although it is set to debut atop the US Billboard chart as I write this review). In fact, much of his solo career thus far has happened quietly, perhaps by accident one could argue. When One Direction took their break exactly two years ago, all the immediate focus wasn’t on him when the harried talk of ‘doing a Robbie’ began to be bandied about, as is always the way when a major league pop act calls time or takes five for a bit ‘to pursue their own projects’.
In the two years since, Zayn Malik and Harry Styles have both released albums to critical adoration and laughable talk of being ‘renaissance men’ like they’re the second coming, but with heavily frontloaded sales that have belied these notions, and barely remembered number one hits, whilst Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson have released insignificant one off singles tapping into the generic, bland-o ‘Tropi-house’ sound with producers and DJs with names, that for all the world, sound like characters from the Wacky Races.
But what Niall’s launch has lacked in a loud social media fanfare, it has more than made up for with some truly brilliant music, with an appeal far greater than the supposedly more credible offerings of his bandmates. ‘Flicker’, his debut set, opens with ‘On The Loose’, a breezy, catchy soft rocking number that calls to mind Fleetwood Mac and ‘Brothers in Arms’ era Dire Straits. From there, it moves from the still gorgeously nostalgic debut top 10 single ‘This Town’, into a delightful country tinged number, ‘Seeing Blind’, a collaboration with Maren Morris that taps neatly into the new Nashville remit whilst retaining a lot of his Emerald isle troubadour leanings.
His biggest hit to date, ‘Slow Hands’, co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr (the man who was part of Adele’s mega selling last album ’25’) is currently the most played song on US pop radio at the moment, following its top 10 success here in the UK over the summer. Listening to it again five months on reminds you exactly of why. Cutting a fine, swaggering groove, with a cheeky lyric, it’s the sort of record you can imagine the same people who still swoon over the moment Justin Timberlake released ‘Cry Me A River’ 15 years ago will talk about in reminiscent, feted excitement come 2032 – and beyond.
Our former #SongoftheWeek ‘Too Much to Ask’ continues to be as beautiful and haunting as it was a month ago – even if it has criminally been deprived of ascending to the top of the charts thus far this autumn. A roguish detour into his home roots back in Mullingar makes itself known on this record, on tracks like ‘Since We’re Alone’, which again has a touch of the Nicks and McVie to it, and also via the Ed Drewett co-written ‘On My Own’, with an anthemic chorus that rivals The Chieftains in it’s charming sing-along tale of good time ribaldry: ‘I’ll drink ’til it’s empty / Stay out ’til it’s dead / I’ll wake up at midday / And marry my bed / I’ll kiss all the women / Get punched in the head / You could offer the world, baby / But I’ll take this instead’.
The real highlight of the album though, and the one that you suspect will grow to be it’s biggest if it eventually becomes a single, is the title track. Raw, stripped back and really showcasing his voice – rough round the edges, but warm and with feeling – it taps so neatly, as much of this record does, into its underlying themes of love, loss and heartbreak, in verses like: ‘When you lay there and you’re sleeping / Hear the patterns of your breathing / And I tell you things you’ve never heard before / Asking questions to the ceiling / Never knowing what you’re thinking / I’m afraid that what we had is gone’.
It’s the touchstone of a record that’s carefully but thoughtfully crafted, and OK, yes, it’s one that wears its influences outwardly – even down to the lovingly retro, 70s ‘Capitol Records’ style print on the CD – but it’s none the worse for all that. In an age when music is so readily being made to ‘sound like Spotify’ (yes, this is sadly an actual thing) and chase a seemingly unending trend of ‘will this do?’, Niall’s stood out just by following his own instincts and musical loves and, with ‘Flicker’, making the kind of album you suspect he’d listen to himself if he wasn’t him. And when, in a year or two from now, as with Take That and Spice Girls before them, the rest of One Direction realise that being a member of one of pop’s biggest acts will only take you so far for a solo career of considerable length and success, Niall’s going to be the one with singles on the airwaves and shifting the albums for a while to come.
STREAM THESE: ‘Flicker’, ‘On My Own’, ‘On the Loose’
‘Flicker’ is out now on Capitol Records. Niall tours the UK and Ireland in March next year as part of his world tour, starting in Belfast on 13th March – tickets are on sale now. Twitter: @NiallOfficial