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Harry Styles’s new song Sign of the Times is David Bowie via Oasis

“I think its hard to not have influences from what you grew up listening to.”

One Direction and classic rock aren’t often put side-by-side, but they probably should be. As Brodie Lancaster notes in this detailed analysis of the influences behind One Direction’s last album, Made in the AM, the band “slowly established a pattern of picking up inspiration from rock history” as their releases developed. Harry Styles, in particular has made his interest in classic rock clear in everything from his dress sense to his gig choices – and now, with the release of his new single, “Sign of the Times”, it’s more obvious than ever.

“I think it’s hard to not have influences from what you grew up listening [to],” Harry told Nick Grimshaw on Radio 1 this morning, just after the song debuted. “I had a good mix between my mum and my dad, because my dad was into, like, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Queen; while my mum was like, Norah Jones and Savage Garden.”

“Sign of the Times” continues in that vein. “He delivered a true spacey rock ballad,” declares Billboard, “something that might fit in more with David Bowie’s catalogue or perhaps even an epic Nineties rock jam like Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” than it does with today’s top 40”.

Yes there’s lots of Bowie in there. And if the lyrics seem familiar – it’s because they are. Obviously, there’s that Prince reference, but there’s more, too. Let’s break it down.

Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times

Those first chords sound a lot like Robbie Williams’s “Angels”, but then we get a whooshy noise straight out of "Space Oddity". What an opener. David Bowie’s “Five Years” meets Oasis’s “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”.

Welcome to the final show
Hope you’re wearing your best clothes

I’m in yesterday’s t-shirt, if I’m honest, Harry. This has something of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” with its doomsday glamour: “He’s in the best-selling show”.

You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky

Ah, the old “heaven as a nightclub” metaphor. Makes me think of  The Stone Roses’s “Breaking Into Heaven” and Alex Turner’s lyric: “It’s like you’re trying to get to heaven in a hurry / And the queue was shorter than you’d thought it would be / And the doorman says, ‘You need to get a wristband’."

You look pretty good down here
But you ain’t really good

Your looks won’t save you come the end of the world, as we know from Lana Del Rey.

We never learn, we been here before
Why are we always stuck and running from the bullet?
The bullet
We never learn, we been here before
Why are always stuck and running from your bullet?
A bullet

Enter falsetto. Finally, the mix of Foster the People and “Heroes” the public have been waiting for. There’s also a hint of Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”.

Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of times
We gotta get away from here
We gotta get away from here
Just stop your crying it will be alright
They told me that the end is near
We gotta get away from here

Just stop your crying, have the time of your life
Breaking through the atmosphere
And things are pretty good from here
Remember everything will be alright
We can meet again somewhere
Somewhere far away from here

“It’s fine, it’s only the apocalypse, darling.” Basically. This is the part that sounds the most Bowie – lyrically, "Watchtower"’s “There must be some kind of way outta here” with the stretched out diphthong  of “aways” on Oasis’s “Don’t Go Away” and “Stand By Me”. There’s a Drop of Jupiter in here somewhere, too.

We don’t talk enough
We should open up
Before it’s all too much
Will we ever learn?
We been here before
Its just what we know

Like that “bullet” bridge, there’s an overarching futility here lyrically similar to Bastille’s “Pompeii” and Coldplay’s “We Never Change”.

It’s a dense call-back to rock of decades past, and, to the casual observer, it might seem like a huge departure from Styles's earlier work. But, as culture writer Lancaster notes, it won’t seem as much of a leap to dedicated One Direction fans.


Now listen to a discussion of Harry Styles’ new single on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear