Louis Tomlinson’s Walls Sadly Stops Short Of A Full-Blown Britpop Revival
Since parting ways, the members of One Direction have all carved out their own place in the pop music firmament. Zayn Malik split before the British boy band’s final album, 2015’s Made In The A.M., and immediately banished himself to some hyper-sexualized adult contemporary netherworld. Niall Horan became a folksy soft-rocker who occasionally feigns some edge. Harry Styles went all-in on ’60s and ’70s rock-star iconography while mostly making the modern equivalent of ’80s VH1-core. Liam Payne stepped into that post-Timberlake lane adjacent to hip-hop and R&B. Most boy bands don’t spin off more than one or two viable solo careers, if that, but 1D’s batting average has been exceptional.
Until now, the one exception has been Louis Tomlinson. The fifth and final One Direction member to release a solo album, Tomlinson has long been the most inscrutable, least successful of the bunch. In the immediate aftermath of the group’s hiatus, he released an unmemorable dance track with Steve Aoki. He followed that up with an indistinct pop duet with Bebe Rexha co-credited to the unfortunately named producer Digital Farm Animals. And then he fell off the radar in the US, where he hasn’t landed a single in the Hot 100 since 2017. Tomlinson even released a statement last year about focusing on making music he loves instead of pursuing hits. By then, unbeknownst to most of us in America, he was already starting to figure out an identity for himself: the ’90s Cool Britannia revivalist.
As proof of concept, he offered his solo debut album, Walls, last Friday. The elevator pitch is that Tomlinson has gone Britpop, which is true to a point. The cheeky, distinctively British movement — Oasis in particular — is an undeniable influence on the album, but I’m hearing lots of other ’90s UK pop references in the mix too. Opening track “Kill My Mind” is a shot of pure Gallaghers worship. “We Made It,” meanwhile, imagines if “Wonderwall” was by Take That, the boy band that gave us Robbie Williams and the transatlantic hit “Back For Good.” A similar formula recurs on “Habits.” And although title track “Walls” cribs so thoroughly from the Oasis catalog that Noel Gallagher received a writing credit, it reminds me more of politely pretty post-Britpop bands like Travis and Coldplay.
In a way, then, Tomlinson is just circling back to the roots of the latter-day 1D sound. By the end of the group’s run, they’d settled into a combination of shout-along stadium anthems, tender acoustic ballads, and midtempo pop-rockers that, in hindsight, represented another step down the evolutionary line from Coldplay descendants like Keane and Snow Patrol. Tomlinson and Payne were the two One Direction members most responsible for developing this sound, cowriting many One Direction tracks with frequent collaborators like John Ryan and Julian Bunetta. Payne’s solo material has swerved violently away from that sound, but Walls eagerly picks it back up. Songs like “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” and “Always You” boast huge gang choruses a la “Steal My Girl,” while softer fare like “Two Of Us” and “Too Young” tap into that “Night Changes” vibe.
Most of the 1D guys have released solo tracks that could just as easily have been 1D songs, even Zayn, the one who made the biggest stink about breaking free from the group’s constraints. It figures that Tomlinson, one of the architects of One Direction’s discography, would use his solo career to extend it. So why didn’t he burst out of the gate three or four years ago with the equivalent of 1D LP6? Presumably he thought he needed a way to distinguish himself from the rest of the lads. As he told Rolling Stone, his initial solo singles were the sound of fumbling about in search of an identity: “It took me a second to work out that I just wanted to follow my heart.”
This approach has worked out about as well as you could hope for within reason. With the help of a wide range of cowriters including the old One Direction braintrust, Tomlinson has given his smooth tenor an impressive batch of melodies to work with. The hooks stick with you, especially the ones he launches skyward at full blast, as on “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” and “Defenceless.” Beyond the fun of hearing those signature Gallagher tics again, they create a sense of displaced nostalgia, of decades’ worth of UK pop-rock collapsing into one streamlined aesthetic. With any luck we’ll now get a whole wave of young British pop stars turning to the likes of Blur, Pulp, and Elastica for inspiration — or at least the Louis Tomlinson version of “Champagne Supernova” at some point.
That said, don’t mistake this faint praise for a ringing endorsement. This album is extremely mid. The arrangements are basic. The lyrics are too reliant on clichés like “I guess some queens don’t need a crown” and “I come runnin’ to you like a moth into flame.” The Britpop gimmick is still going to be a rickety bridge for anyone who found One Direction too saccharine. Even when Tomlinson is singing earnestly to his dead mother on “Two Of Us,” the inoffensive gloss over everything will be a barrier to entry (some call them Walls) for anyone who has to stop and consider how many degrees of self-protective irony they’re listening through. The pretense of hipness is not there like it is with Harry Styles, and yes I realize what a low bar that is. Sadly, the Definitely Maybe-isms of “Kill My Mind” mostly turn out to be a feint.
You got the good news about the One Direction solo diaspora up front: None of them has been reduced to Chris Kirkpatrick status yet. Now here’s the bad news: None of them has given us anything nearly as good as FutureSex/LoveSounds yet either. In fact, the lot of them have very rarely risen above competent mediocrity. Styles has come closest to something resembling pop music at its euphoric best, but even he tempers his work with the same soft-rock radio conservatism that befalls the rest of them. It’s like fealty to the 1D brand (maybe unconsciously in Zayn’s case) has created this bubble they can’t bring themselves to burst out of. Tomlinson is the guy who, upon seeing the 2018 Coachella lineup, scornfully wondered, “Where the fuck are all the bands?” He likes to rock. “Kill My Mind” suggests he’s pretty good at rocking. Imagine what an interesting record he could make if he let himself do so rather than remaining in the safety of One Direction’s shadow.
The Roddy Ricch phenomenon continues to persist. The Compton rapper once again has both the #1 album and song in America.
Let’s talk singles first: “The Box” tops the Hot 100 for a fourth straight week. For the third straight week, it’s immediately followed by Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” at #2. From #3 to #8 we have Post Malone’s “Circles,” Maroon 5’s “Memories,” Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber’s “10,000 Hours,” Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey,” and Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne.” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” rises to a new #9 peak, becoming her second top 10 hit following the #6-peaking “New Rules.” And rounding out the top 10 is Billie Eilish’s “everything i wanted,” back up from #23 last week thanks to a new music video (and, presumably, all her Grammy success).
As for the Billboard 200 albums chart, Ricch’s Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial climbs back to #1 for a third nonconsecutive frame with 95,000 equivalent album units, Billboard reports. It’s aided by a total lack of major new releases on this week’s chart. The rest of the top 10 comprises hit albums from Eminem, Billie Eilish, Halsey, Post Malone, Mac Miller, DaBaby, Harry Styles, Moneybagg Yo, and Jackboys.
Taylor Swift – “Only The Young”
The chorus is too simplistic, the message is a bit on the nose, the production left over from 1989. But as Taylor Swift one-offs go, I prefer it to her Cats song and “Christmas Tree Farm.”
Justin Bieber – “Get Me” (Feat. Kehlani)
One cool thing about this song is that unlike “Yummy,” you can listen to it without being overcome with paralyzing shame. That faux-40 production is nice too, and I especially like when it turns into a Kehlani song in the second verse.
Dua Lipa – “Physical”
What did we do to deserve a Dua Lipa song that steals the phrase “Let’s get physical” from Olivia Newton-John and is almost as good as ONJ’s original? Come to think of it, what did we do to deserve Dua Lipa in general?
Meghan Trainor – “Nice To Meet Ya” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
The goofy office-themed video may blind you to the fact that this is maybe the best Meghan Trainor song ever. Ojivolta’s fake Neptunes production is especially nice.
Cheat Codes – “No Service In The Hills” (Feat. Trippie Redd, blackbear, & PRINCE$$ ROSIE)
Few phrases have ever made me feel older than “Cheat Codes featuring Trippie Redd, blackbear, and PRINCE$$ ROSIE.” This definitely feels like it belongs on the soundtrack to a bad Netflix movie. That said, the hook is catchy and I enjoy most song premises involving bad phone reception.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Charlie Puth scrapped his new album because it didn’t feel “real”: “It’s almost like I was trying to be too cool in a way.” [Twitter]
- At her pre-Super Bowl BUDX show in Miami, Halsey went off on a heckler who was shouting G-Eazy’s name. [Twitter]
- Juice WRLD reportedly left thousands of unreleased songs when he died. [TMZ]
- Harry Styles joined Lizzo on “Juice” at a pre-Super Bowl concert in Miami. [CoS]
- Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth finalized their divorce. [ABC]
- J Balvin’s new album Colores is out in March. [Pitchfork]
- Kelly Clarkson joined Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy on a performance of “A Little Bit Alexis.” [YouTube]
- NCT 127 shared a video for “Dreams Come True” and announced a new album Neo Zone. [Twitter]
- Usher will host and perform at the iHeartRadio Music Awards. [iHeart]
- Tove Lo released a video for her MC Zaac collab “Are U Gonna Tell Her?.” [YouTube]
- Kesha sang “Resentment” with Wrabel in a fish-eye The Late Late Show performance. [YouTube]
- Dr. Phil joined Meghan Trainor’s Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
- Trainor and Nicki Minaj also released a video for “Nice To Meet Ya.” [YouTube]
- 5 Seconds Of Summer announced a North American tour. [5SOS]
- Diplo released a new version of “Heartless” with Julia Michaels and Morgan Wallen. [YouTube]
- Ally Brooke released a video for her excellent “No Good.” [YouTube]
- Kacey Musgraves got a puppy. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Shakira wore her same outfit from Zootopia… pic.twitter.com/kjc3tlPZLY
— Real Patrick Kling (@PatrickSKling) February 3, 2020
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
— David (@entralada_) February 3, 2020
OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME
Best Super Bowl half time show ever.
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) February 3, 2020