For a group like One Direction who frequently came across as though they were truly incapable of failure in the public eye, watching the five members’ solo careers become subsequently defined by the laws of extremities that so often dictate pop music’s traction is a strange phenomenon. Between the naturally meteoric success of Harry Styles’ soft-rock that’s been given the platform one would expect from the group’s de facto mainman and the floundering cluelessness of Liam Payne’s dated-on-arrival chart-pop, the other three have found themselves at a pretty fundamental disadvantage when wedged between the two. In some cases it’s earned (Zayn Malik’s Icarus Falls hasn’t been listened to by a single person on the planet, guaranteed), but in the case of Niall Horan, he’s currently sitting on the strongest foundation that’s gone drastically underrated pretty much since the beginning. Real earnestness and a flair for classic pop-rock put in a similar position to a post-Take That Robbie Williams, but holding that fast on a sound that, like it or not, isn’t in fashion has given Horan’s solo work a slower start than would’ve been preferable, particularly when the talent was there on his debut album Flicker. That doesn’t seem to have changed in the lead-up to Heartbreak Weather either; despite the runaway success of Nice To Meet Ya, the buildup has been predictably gradual, and for an artist who’s more than capable of shedding the expectations of his boyband roots for something more homespun and real, it can be disappointing to see that potential not take the form it should.
But at the same time, it’s especially telling that both Horan and Styles have yielded the most quality through a more grown-up pop mould, and that’s worth acknowledging given the greater perceived creative freedom that bestows upon them both. Styles has undoubtedly done more with and that’s led to his rise being more considerable in the long run, but as far as establishing himself as a perfectly dependable mid-shelf pop artist, Heartbreak Weather sees Horan flaunting the same confidence to do his own thing without going as big with it. The aforementioned comparisons to Robbie Williams might have been leaned on in the past, but an album like this operates on a smaller scale, and while that can occasionally be to its detriment, the overall vibe is pleasant enough that it’s hard to actively dislike, even if it’s not shooting for the gold standard of pop in this vein.
In all fairness though, when Heartbreak Weather’s primary points of reference are ‘80s soft rock cuts that can still hold their own on contemporary listens, adventurousness isn’t as much of a factor as ensuring that everything lands with same degree of retro flair and panache, and that’s a jump that Horan makes a pretty convincing landing off. He gives an especially strong performance when tapping into an earnestness that, for an album exclusively centred around love and heartbreak, can lessen some of overly-heightened threads for something much more approachable and everyman. He’s really not that believable as a smooth-talking player on Small Talk or someone on the rebound looking to get over a breakup by getting under someone else on Arms Of A Stranger and New Angel, but they generally prove to exceptions to an emotional range that more tightly encompasses feelings of weariness and confusion. There’s a bit of overselling to the desperation of Everywhere, but the simplicity offered to wistful reminiscence on Dear Patience and Put A Little Love On Me feels brilliantly well-realised, as does the big-hearted exuberance of simply being in love on Black And White. Even on Nice To Meet Ya, which could easily fall victim to its own swagger and strut, the overall sense of bemusement proves important in tempering some potentially mistreatable elements, and with the emphasis on surging pop-rock grooves running throughout, it’s easy to single out as Heartbreak Weather’s highlight.
That’s also because it’s really the only song on the album that sounds like that, and while that sense of individuality is useful for it to have, it also makes it clearer that instrumentally, this album can be a bit of a mixed bag. Granted, a fair deal does trend towards positivity, with Horan proving himself to have a good command of a lot of his classic influences. The gleaming new wave synths of the title track, the storming pace of Black And White which feels imbued with shades of U2 and Bruce Springsteen and the return to Fleetwood Mac-esque territory on Cross Your Mind cover a rather broad sonic cross-section, but what they lack in consistency, they make up for in decently authentic production and a strong sense of tone and melody that Horan is definitely adept at reshaping and reapplying when needed. Regardless of where it lands on the musical spectrum, Heartbreak Weather is an album that’s refreshingly removed from the modern pop landscape, and that’s a good quality to have overall; even if the end product on certain songs isn’t so great, it’s at least not falling into trends or tropes that could bring it down further. Granted, that isn’t enough to save certain songs as the lumpy, canned beats of Small Talk and the rather innocuous disco progressions of New Angel prove, but perhaps the biggest gripe with Heartbreak Weather is that it really doesn’t have a lot of forward motion or considerable high points. Sure, it’s good plenty of decent moments, but when few of them stand out prominently, it can leave the album as a whole feeling a bit one-paced with not a lot of variation or staying power. It could afford to take more risks overall, and while that as a statement can be pretty counterintuitive with the ethos of pop music as a whole, Horan’s clear rejection of the genre’s modern conventions opens up avenues to do a lot more, and the fact that those opportunities haven’t been taken as emphatically as they could is disappointing.
But at the end of the day, it’s hard to bemoan an album that does exactly what it it’s intended to do and, for the most part, does it fairly well. Heartbreak Weather doesn’t give the impression of some longstanding classic-in-the-making, but for a pop album with a bit more heart than is usually present, it’s a good enough time on the whole. As far as One Direction solo careers go, Horan’s still feels up there, especially when he shows how capable he is at forging rock-solid melodies that are still hugely accessible while displaying a good amount of flair and character, and on an album in which they’re perhaps its most important factors, it’s done well gives the whole thing a bit of a boost that a little monotony in the overall tone and scale does benefit from. It lets Heartbreak Weather average out with a higher win rate, and even if that might not last with regards to replayability, it’s good that it’s here now, and that’s still worth something.
For fans of: Ed Sheeran, Lewis Capaldi, 5 Seconds Of Summer
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Heartbreak Weather’ by Niall Horan is out now on Capitol Records.