Approaching the entrance for Harry Styles’s “One Night Only” performance at Brixton Academy on 24 May, I looked down to see discarded duvets and inside-out umbrellas lying on the ground near my feet — detritus left behind by the fans who had camped outside for more than 48 hours in wet weather to secure a spot at the front of the crowd. Such displays of dedication are typical at a Styles concert, but there is a particularly feverish note of excitement surrounding this gig. It is his first UK show in two and a half years, and at a much smaller venue than is usual. (Styles is due to play two nights at Wembley Stadium in a matter of weeks, to a crowd 20 times the size.) His new album Harry’s House was released on 20 May. It has become a tradition for the singer to perform each new record in full to a small audience to mark its release, so this intimate show is an enviable ticket, the cause of much joy and heartbreak among fans.
Since the boyband One Direction dissolved in 2016, Styles has released three solo albums of glossily-produced, lightly alternative pop songs that sound undeniably slick and confident on record, but really come alive at his shows. When the sheer power of Styles’s sexual charisma on stage comes into contact with the unrelenting enthusiasm of his audience — the meeting of an irresistible object and an unstoppable force — something almost chemically euphoric happens in the room. It was hard to resist the intensity of the collective scream emitted when he finally appeared before the crowd, wearing a T-shirt covered in large black polka dots, tight white flares and a chunky blue necklace. The opener, “Music For A Sushi Restaurant”, a charming bit of playful noodling on the album, became an ecstatic, infectious dance party in person, while “Daylight” and “Cinema” similarly took on new dynamism. “Late Night Talking” — the sexiest song on the record — was a standout.
As this was a showcase for the new record, each track was played in order; inevitably the gig lacked the surprise and spectacle of a major stadium show. But though Harry’s House had only been out for a few days the audience dutifully reacted to each new song as if they’d been listening to it for a decade. There were tears at “Matilda”, a bouquet thrown on to the stage in time with the “Grapejuice” lyric “I was on my way to buy some flowers for you”, and the most explicit lyrics on the record were amplified by the crowd. (There was something uncomfortable in hearing a crowd of 5,000 young women scream “choke her”, even if Styles made a joke of it by looking up to his mother, his sister and his girlfriend, the film director Olivia Wilde, in the circle and saying: “I never thought I’d say ‘Cocaine, side boob / Choke her with a sea view’ with my mother in the audience.”) A fan holding a sign saying “MY BOYFRIEND F*CKED MY BEST FRIEND – BOYFRIENDS SUCK” provided a segue into the knowing, harmony-laden ballad “Boyfriends”, which shows how much Styles’s vocals have matured since he began his solo career. During the album closer, “Love of My Life”, an ode to England, Styles twirled around wrapped in a Union Jack thrown on stage.
The encore was reserved for fan favourites from his other albums. There was “Adore You” (as the crowd sang “Just let me adore you”, Styles gave a little faux-coy shrug and said, “…OK!”); his biggest hit, “Watermelon Sugar” (introduced with the sentence, “If you ever find yourself in a position where you feel confused or scared, remember: we can always sing along to a song about oral sex”); his debut single, “Sign of the Times” (which was interrupted to remove a fan who had collapsed from the crowd); and his country-inflected solo version of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”. “Kiwi”, a pastiche-y rock song that often results in mosh pits and used to be played two or three times at his early gigs, made for a satisfyingly chaotic closer. As the crowd gradually dispersed, there was an atmosphere of relief and luck. One young woman in front of me opened her phone to post to social media. “I LOVE HARRY SO SO SO SO MUCH,” she wrote. “I’M SO GRATEFUL FOR THIS MAN.”