First single from his solo debut album will hook music fans who wouldn't be caught dead listening to One Direction.
For graduates of boy or girl band stardom, starting a new, more serious musical chapter calls for some kind of grand gesture, a clear signal to fans, critics – even themselves – that they’ve put their poppy past behind them.
Harry Styles’ first single from his self-titled debut album is just such a gesture. After years of boxing himself in with the English-Irish boy band One Direction, Styles has co-written a soaring, spacey power ballad that harkens back to David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and other 70s rock out of the U.K. It’s a surprisingly powerful tune, one that will hook scores of music fans who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to One Direction.
But it’s not just the sound of “Sign of the Times” that’s compelling. There are also the lyrics, which (at the expense of a little ambiguity) wade into some deep waters:
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?Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times We gotta get away from here Just stop your crying, it’ll be alright They told me that the end is near We gotta get away from hereJust 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…We don’t talk enough, we should open up
Before it’s all too much
Will we ever learn? We’ve been here before
It’s just what we know
Stop your crying, baby, it’s a sign of the times
We gotta get away
In a Rolling Stone piece by Cameron Crowe, Styles said that the song came from a concern about “fundamentals” like equal rights. He then offered the interpretation of a mother dying after childbirth: “The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.'”
Then, in an interview with the New York Times, Styles circled back to the theme of social and political upheaval, conceding that the “outside chaos” of the world crept into his songwriting. “We’re in a difficult time, and I think we’ve been in many difficult times before,” he explains. “But we happen to be in a time where things happening around the world are absolutely impossible to ignore … It’s very much me looking at that. It’s a time when it’s very easy to feel incredibly sad about a lot of things.”
But “Sign of the Times” feels like more than a political song. It feels eschatological.
The title itself has a concrete religious history: it’s rooted in Christ’s words in the New Testament about the signs he was giving and the kingdom they foretold (Luke 12:54, Matthew 16:3); it takes on a prophetic tone in evangelical circles (amounting to “signs of the end times”); and it was a key phrase of Vatican II, which argued that the Church should interpret the signs of the times “in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudiem Et Spes).
There are bits and pieces of all of these meanings in the lyrics. Styles does hit some apocalyptic notes (“the end is near,” “welcome to the final show”) as he surveys the times. But there’s also an admission that this world is a broken world, a vale of tears and bullets that “ain’t really good”; a desire for “somewhere far away from here” where “everything will be alright”; and between those worlds, a door that you can’t bribe your way around – a striking reflection of John 10.
Then there’s the music video.
We see no scenes of a dying mother or news footage of protests, but we do see five bizarre minutes of a solitary Styles floating across a deserted landscape. And he doesn’t just float; he runs across the water, opens his arms in an attitude of submission, and gazes (and eventually rises) into the clouds.
Was God somewhere on Styles’ mind as he wrote the song? Did his Catholic outlook (he makes the sign of the cross on stage, wore a St. Christopher medal while on tour, and has tattoos of the Bible and the Cross on his arm) just take center stage?
Even if the answer is “no,” and even if Styles didn’t really know what he was saying or why, the song’s ache for the transcendent remains fascinating – not as a read of the times in light of the Gospel, but as a reach for that light in some undeniably dark times.