“This is a very special evening for me, for us,” Harry Styles said to a crowd of nearly 20,000 at the UBS Arena on Friday, and to millions over an Apple Music livestream. “We’re in New York City for one night only, and we’ll be playing this new album for you the way it was intended to be heard: From start to finish.”
And with a giant neon outline of a house behind him, that’s exactly what Styles and his tightly drilled band did: Premiere his just-released third solo album, “Harry’s House,” at a “One Night Only” concert, an arena-sized album release party offered for Styles’ most devoted fans (even if the title was a bit of a misnomer: There’s a similar concert taking place in London next week).
At any Styles concert, the devotees trade histories like battle scars. “Which One Direction tour did you see?” “Did you get a ticket to Harryween?” “Are you still friends with the girls you met at Love on Tour?” But despite the concert’s name, scarcity isn’t a quality anyone would attribute to Harry Styles these days: His pandemic-delayed “Love on Tour” rampaged across North America for most of last fall, he headlined Coachella last month, he just dropped a new album, and along the way he’s been a darling of Anna Wintour, muse to Alessandro Michele of Gucci and a boyish face for Christopher Nolan. And with barely a pause, he’s off again, beginning a European tour next month that comes back to the States for three months in the fall. Harry fans’ cups runneth over.
Still, Friday night was the first time he’d ever be performing most of the new album before a live audience, so the sense of an event was palpable, and for many felt like a secret privilege.
But “Harry’s House” is a departure, and performing an entire brand-new album, even before an adoring crowd, is a doubtless nerve-wracking challenge. Added to that, it’s a more intimate album than “Fine Line,” its flamboyant predecessor, and many of its lilting, breezy songs aren’t fodder for an outsized stadium tour. Styles, dressed in a Gucci t-shirt and leather slacks, seemed slightly nervous as he and his tightly drilled band rolled through the first few songs of the album — in order — strolling from the synthy hook of the album’s current hit single, “As It Was,” to tender offerings like “Matilda” and the light funk of tracks like “Daydreaming” and “Cinema.” The fans roared in approval and many sang along in places, but they’d first heard most of the songs less than 24 hours earlier.
Styles rarely spoke to the crowd during the first few songs, but loosened up as the evening progressed. “How are we doing so far?” he asked during one of several digressions where he spoke of how much the album means to him, how it’s the product of “everything we’ve all been through, collectively and as individuals, over the past two years,” and how pleased and relieved he is to finally have it out in the world. “I mean, I like it,” he said of the album. “But I’m very, very happy that you like it so far.”
As he did at Coachella, Styles was accompanied by three of his female bandmembers for “Boyfriends,” the penultimate track on the album, for some close harmonies over acoustic guitars. The style of song is new for him — a slow, contemplative and serious ballad — but its lyrics are clearly aimed at the heartstrings of his core fan base: The song is “for anyone who’s ever had or haven’t had or had any relation to a boyfriend.”
As the album reached its conclusion, Styles told the crowd he’d be back shortly to play a few more songs, and then closed the main set with the album’s final track, “Love of My Life.” He thanked Rob Stringer, the head of his record label, Sony Music. “You might think I’d hate the head of my record company but I don’t,” he said, and spoke of Stringer’s generosity letting Styles borrow his home to work on the album, and noted that the song had been written there. (That sound you hear is Rob Stringer’s phone ringing, as artists call to ask if they too can borrow his house.)
At the song’s conclusion, Styles briefly left the stage and then returned to play some older songs. While the preceding 45 minutes had seen a (relatively) lower-key Styles concentrating hard on the new material, the encore was like he’d been let out of his cage. He and the band roared through several of his greatest hits — “Adore You,” “Watermelon Sugar,” “Sign of the Times,” his One Direction showcase “What Makes You Beautiful,” “Kiwi” and even a crowd-singalong reprise of “As It Was” — in a seemingly ad-libbed set: at one point, the band seemed confused and vamped on an almost heavy metal riff while Styles ventured out onto the walkways that led from the stage toward the center of the arena for approximately the twentieth time that night. Several times, he seemed to be leaving the stage but came back to play another song, and the crowd roared at the finale as he waved first a Ukrainian flag, and then his usual rainbow-colored one in a statement of solidarity with both.
The two halves of the concert — “Harry’s House” and the encores of stadium-sized hits — presented the differences between his new and old material in stark relief. How he reconciles the two on his months-long forthcoming tour remains to be seen — but in the meantime, the ecstatic crowd in New York (along with the millions who’d watched the livestream) left knowing they’d witnessed a historic night in Harrylore.
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.
A Variety and iHeartRadio Podcast