As a long-time listener of the band, it’s been fascinating to watch the members of One Direction carve out their own paths as solo musicians. Each seems determined to lay claim to his own style: Harry Styles has his soft rock and Zayn Malik has his sex-infused R&B, while Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson seem to be battling it out over who can put out the most slickly produced club jams. All of them are trying to make it clear that they’re doing their own thing now, and there seems to be a vague sort of tension in the air as they settle into their respective niches of the music industry.
I’ve been a One Direction fan since 2013, so I’ve spent more time listening to their music than is reasonable. I was curious to hear Niall Horan’s music in particular because he was one of the least prominent vocalists across One Di- rection’s discography. Sure, he had a verse per song and maybe a couple of choruses, but I didn’t hear him nearly as much as I did Payne or Styles.
Horan mostly stayed in the background, providing lovely harmonies and playing his guitar. When he announced that he had signed with Capitol Records, I was intrigued. His transformation into a solo artist meant that his fans would finally get to hear him stripped down to his essence, or so we hoped.
Horan must have gotten the message, because he delivered. His album is a quiet, solid statement of identity, taking up space without any arrogance. The warm folk-pop jams filling the tracklist seem like a natural extension of his jocular personality, providing fans with much more insight into his feelings than any One Direction record ever has. It feels like he’s been waiting for the chance to take the spotlight for a little bit, and “Flicker” is that chance. Horan presents himself with confidence, fully aware that he has an audience.
“Flicker” is a relaxed record for the most part, a warm whirl of acoustic guitar and easy- going vocals. It makes you wish that you were on a farm somewhere on a crisp fall afternoon, watching the sun filter through the trees. When I look back on the release of this album’s first single, “This Town,” it’s obvious that Horan was setting the tone for his listeners. He rarely strays away from his guitar, which is in the center of his comfort zone. His love of the instrument on One Direction’s tours was not a publicity stunt.
Within this guitar-driven style, however, Horan shows a remarkable range of feeling. There are emotional ballads like “Paper Houses” and “Too Much To Ask,” the latter of which incorporates soft piano. Towards the end, Horan pays raucous homage to his Irish upbringing in “On My Own,” with a swinging, foot-stomping instrumental. It seems that Horan pulled from many different muses, weaving the final track- list together with his own creative touch. The album might have a cohesive sound, but its varying emotions keep it from being boring.
Horan’s vocals are just as capable of capturing different feelings as his guitar. When he sings, “I know, yeah, already know that there ain’t no stoppin’ / Your plans and those slow hands,” on the steamy single “Slow Hands,” his voice is low and husky with desire. To the pensiveness on “Since We’re Alone,” he turns soothing, and croons, “I don’t know what made you so afraid / Don’t you know you got the best of me? / Yeah, you’re everything I want.” Then there’s the previously mentioned “On My Own,” which makes it hard to believe that Horan was feeling anything less than ecstasy as he belted it out in the studio.
Part of the reason that Horan’s vocals come across as so genuine is probably that he wrote so much of this record. He has credits on all of the tracks, with notable help from Julian Bunetta and Jamie Scott, the latter of whom worked previously alongside One Direction. Horan spoke with avid passion about the tracks he wrote for One Direction during his time in the boyband, so it’s no surprise that he spent so much time songwriting for his own album. Some of the lyrics are truly lovely, like the lines, “And our paper houses reached the stars / Till we break and scatter worlds apart” on “Paper Houses.”
If “Flicker” has a standout track, it’s definitely “Seeing Blind,” which features Maren Morris. The presence of Morris pushes this song in more of a country direction than any of the others. It has a rustic, bumpy instrumental, complimented by playful lyrics about unexpected love. “Oh my, my / You just took me by surprise / And I can’t believe my eyes / Oh, I must be seeing blind,” they sing in the chorus, their voices blending together marvelously. They duet and take their own verses in turn, showing off their vocal talents with verve. The track is so much fun; it fills its listener with giddy butterflies. If Horan can come out with more music like this, maybe he should think about going country.
All in all, this is a strong debut from Horan. It’s heartwarming to see him taking the stage himself for once, unfettered by a group identity. “Flicker” is definitely an album from which Horan can grow—maybe for his next record he’ll move out of his comfort zone and work a little more with other instruments and styles. For now, however, his fans will be content to sing along to the catchy, poppy folk tunes Horan has presented in this album. He has plenty of time to write, sing and move forward.