Ever since One Direction first announced their
split 'hiatus', there's been speculation about what direction each member of the boyband might take for their solo material.
While Harry Styles is embracing boho-indie-pop balladry, Louis Tomlinson embroiled in EDM and Liam Payne has served up his frankly hitherto godawful take on r'n'b, it's no surprise that Niall Horan is going for the folkier end of the pop spectrum - especially considering his penchant for playing guitar during the boyband's live shows and citing '70s rock like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles as influences in the past.
We had an opportunity to hear the Mullingar man's debut album 'Flicker' in full ahead of its release on October 20th, and below you'll find a track-by-track rundown and our first impressions of the record.
1. 'On the Loose'
A slickly-produced 'adult' pop tune with a brisk, sombre beat, the opener sees Horan sing about a mysterious, untrustworthy lady: “I know what she's like, she's out of her mind / She wraps herself around the truth” with a little flutter of acoustic guitar audible throughout. It's a toe-tappy, very radio-friendly opener. “I know what she's like, I fell for her twice, and now I'm just warning you.” That's very considerate of you, Niall. Nice to know you haven't completely forgotten your pop roots, too.
2. 'This Town'
His first solo single, we thought this song bore a striking resemblance to One Direction's 'Little Things' the first time we heard it, and we haven't changed our minds hearing it in the context of the album. A little dull, but sure it's grand, like.
3. 'Seeing Blind' feat. Maren Morris
This is a jaunty little number that sees Horan duet with American country singer Maren Morris, and it definitely has a loose, country-pop feel to it. It's a midtempo love song that sees them swap verses and harmonise on the chorus. Their voices work quite well together, too. Lines like “I see you from a different point of view / Feels too good to be true / I found my missing piece” elicit reactions that are equal parts 'nawwwww' and 'barfffff'.
4. 'Slow Hands'
i.e. The One Where Nialler Gets to Indulge His Love of Bluesy Guitar. A slinky, slouchy number that you've probably heard a million times already at this point. It's catchy, we'll give him that.
5. 'Too Much to Ask'
His latest single opens with a sombre piano riff and Horan's voice pitched at a lower register. His voice actually sounds lovely on this track, although when the beat kicks in it quickly becomes a fairly dull, bogstandard pop ballad.
6. 'Paper Houses'
Opening with an acoustic guitar riff and the gentle patter of drums, this is possibly Horan's most Ed Sheeran-esque song on the album. “Our paper houses reach the stars until we break and scatter worlds apart.” Plenty of dodgy card analogies on this one, like “We held our cards, built them high / But way too close to the light”, it's a tune about moving on after a relationship. Someone give the lad a hug.
7. 'Since We're Alone'
Another pop tune built around a neat little guitar lick, a jaunty beat and a 'You're perfect as you are, bbz – don't change!' sentiment, lyrics include “Since we're alone, show me all that you are / If you get lost in the light, that's okay, I can see in the dark.” Someone listened to his mammy and ate his carrots as a kid. It's at the blander end of the '70s/'80s pop-rock scale, but it's not the worst.
The title conjures up images of playing acoustic guitars around a campfire, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Horan's voice is front-and-centre here over a scratchy strummed riff, before subtle piano and brushed percussion is introduced. It's actually a sweet little melody with shades of Damien Rice - although the lyrics are fairly trite: “Then I think of the start and it echoes a spark / And I remember the magic electricity / Then I look in my heart, there's a light in the dark / Still a flicker of hope that you first gave to me.”
9. 'Fire Away'
We're back to loose country-pop territory; strummed guitar, really nice, softly-sung soulful vocals. The whole thing is understated yet upbeat, and benefits from dreamy backing vocals on the chorus. This is definitely one of the best songs on the albums – very Paolo Nutini. FYI Nialler: this is the musical avenue worth further exploration.
10. 'You and Me'
“I've got a young heart and it's wild and free / I don't know where it starts, but it ends with you and me”. Despite the cheesy-as-hell rhyming dictionary lyrics on this song, it's a bluesy, midtempo, fairly inoffensive tune that sees him plead on the chorus 'What do I have to do to make you believe that it's all for you and me?' Personally, we would have thought 'Fire Away' a more suitable closing track, but sure lookit.
Verdict: There's no doubt that Horan has moved on from the cheesy in-your-face pop of 1D; these songs are infinitely more 'grown-up' and serious. Do they scream 'innovation' or 'uniquely Niall Horan'? Certainly not. It's probably a little too safe (it's lacking any edge whatsoever) to win over the previously uninitiated in the way that Harry Styles did with his album (i.e. the people who grudgingly conceded 'Hmmm, s'actually alright') - but Horan's established fanbase will lap this up, and there's a couple of numbers that'll have you toe-tapping within a 50-metre radius of the nearest radio, despite your best efforts.
It's out on October 20th, so you'll be able to hear it for yourself then.