TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Harry Styles is a member of the teen pop group One Direction, and he's just released his first solo album, which has topped the album charts. Dan Auerbach is one half of the rock act The Black Keys. He has just released a new solo album. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of both new releases, finding common ground in the two musicians' quest for authenticity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")
HARRY STYLES: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. She's got a family in Carolina. So far away, but she says I remind her of home. Feeling oh so far from home. She never saw herself...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Harry Styles presents his first solo album titled "Harry Styles" as earnest labor, a skip through eras of pop music that preceded his birth. You can hear how closely he's listened to Queen and T. Rex and David Bowie and especially Elton John. Listen to the way Styles' first single, "Sign Of The Times," begins as a turgid ballad, only to take off in a surge of emotion that recalls Elton's "Rocket Man."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE TIMES")
STYLES: (Singing) Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times. Welcome to the final show. Hope you're wearing your best clothes. You can't bribe the door on your way to the sky. You look pretty good down here, but you ain't really good.
We never learn. We been here before. Why are we always stuck and running from the bullets, the bullets? We never learn. We been here before. Why are we always stuck and running from the bullets, the bullets?
Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times. We got to get away from here. We got to get away from here.
TUCKER: That song is already a hit, a chunk of highly effective melodrama that "American Idol" contestants will be massacring for years to come. Knowing he's got the youth market sewn up, Styles is trying to sell older listeners on his new work. He's following a frayed playbook, one in which you stop in at Rolling Stone magazine to peddle your wares. Rolling Stone complied by enlisting Cameron Crowe, who first came to prominence transcribing the infinite wisdom of the Eagles and Jackson Browne for that magazine in the '70s. Crowe interviewed Styles and confirmed Harry's sincerity to an audience that still views boy bands and pop stars as automatic sellouts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO GHOSTS")
STYLES: (Singing) Same lips red, same eyes blue, same white shirt, couple more tattoos but it's not you. And it's not me. Tastes so sweet, looks so real, sounds like something that I used to feel. But I can't touch what I see. We're not who we used to be. We're not who we used to be. We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.
TUCKER: That's Harry Styles. Now listen to Dan Auerbach who has spent much of his time in The Black Keys making bluesy rock 'n' roll rooted in earlier areas of hard rock. "Waiting On A Song" isn't his first solo album, but it's the first one in which he sounds like he wants a big pop hit, if only this was 1972.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING ON A SONG")
DAN AUERBACH: (Singing) I been thinking. I been humming. I been picking, and I been strumming just waiting, waiting on a song. I been hitching, and I been thumbing. I can almost hear one coming. I'm just waiting, waiting on a song. I looked down in my pocket.
TUCKER: That's the album's title song, a catchy little thing he co-wrote with three other guys, one of whom is the great singer-songwriter John Prine. Auerbach went to Nashville to make this record. He had the means to start his own recording studio there, and he hired a passel of veteran musicians who've played with acts, such as Elvis Presley and Duane Eddy to record with him. Heck, Auerbach even hired Duane Eddy himself to play guitar on this album. It's a little like buying your way into one concept of authenticity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' IN SIN")
AUERBACH: (Singing) Last night, you seemed to deal with it all right. Girl, you know that I meant well. I promise you that I won't tell. Your touch is electrical. I'm so susceptible. We know we have always been living in sin, living in sin, living in sin, living in sin. It's not right.
TUCKER: Auerbach's challenge as a solo artist is the opposite of Harry Styles'. Auerbach is grappling with a need to transcend the self-consciousness of The Black Keys hipster blues. He does it by immersing himself in other genres of pop music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALIBU MAN")
AUERBACH: (Singing) I moved from New York with my boogie board and bought a big house on the ocean. Stopped being me. I took the shoes off my feet just because I took a notion. My hair gave in so my beard came out caused quite a face of commotion. It grew past my lips and then it covered my mouth so no one can read my emotions. Malibu Man isn't my friend. Got the world in his hands, Malibu Man.
TUCKER: Styles and Auerbach could not be more different in where they come from musically, but their new albums meet in a middle ground of forced humility. Trying to convince you of the seriousness of their studies in pop, they drain off the kind of spontaneity that can result in great work. But they managed to fashion a few enjoyable replicas of energetic work.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed new solo albums by Harry Styles and Dan Auerbach. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Aziz Ansari about co-writing and co-starring in season two of his Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." Among the things his character deals with this season, his decision to eat pork in front of his parents who are Muslim immigrants from India.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTER OF NONE")
AZIZ ANSARI: (As Dev) You know what? I'm not religious, and I don't think it's right to pretend to be.
SHOUKATH ANSARI: (As Ramesh) What do you mean you are not religious?
ANSARI: (As Dev) It's just not for me.
GROSS: I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "SHINE ON ME")
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyillis Myers, Amy Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE ON ME")
AUERBACH: (Singing) You only got a couple miles to go if you're trying to drive me insane. I saw you crack a smile about a week ago in the middle of the pouring rain. So I climbed the cliffs of Dover to go dry out.
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