It is rarely easy to break the shackles of the boy-band label. The stigma, warranted or not, can suffocate one’s future creative pursuits as a solo artist. But Niall Horan manages to further distance himself from his One Direction days with his second solo effort. A collective storyline of 14 songs, Heartbreak Weather is a stylistic leveling-up that swings for flashy theatrics, moody ruminations and a silky vocal coating.
The album seems to take the listener down a recent breakup’s memory lane via various meteorological images conjured up by Horan, but much of it feels awfully familiar in terms of vague romantic compliments and messages of yearning. His soulful vocals do a fine job of creating a welcoming, warm atmosphere and carrying the story along in Heartbreak Weather, but his lyrical landscape is somewhat thin, the musical production seemingly impenetrable.
The titular track, “Heartbreak Weather,” opens the record with a departure from Horan’s previously established airy, guitar-led ballads, instead offering a more sluggish pop pacing. It’s sweet writing, with fears and regrets embedded through pitiful fallacies. “Time to open up my eyes/ And read the writing in the sky,” Horan sings in a hopeless, resigned manner.
If debut album Flicker was inspired by Fleetwood Mac, Heartbreak Weather seems to be influenced by the Jonas Brothers’ recent revival. Horan’s first solo album nods wistfully to the past, but this sophomore album builds on a learned history of conventionally attractive, straight white men writing love songs for enormous audiences, while also aiming to move away from solely guitar-led romantic offerings.
This means that straightforward ballads, such as “Dear Patience” and “Bend the Rules,” are dressed in electronic theatrics. This doesn’t quite ruin Horan’s tender lamenting for a lost relationship, but it still dilutes the emotional impact. Peppered with hooks and catchy melodies, everything sounds like something you might have heard somewhere before, which, in the case of Ed Sheeran-soundalike single “No Judgement,” we almost certainly have.
Lead single “Nice To Meet Ya” is the album’s real highlight, however. Blending 2000s rock and R&B elements, it’s an unexpected direction from Horan. Tenderness comes through in places too, especially on tracks that are as stripped-back in production as possible. “Put A Little Love On Me” is the greatest manifestation of this, a gentle lament full of rhetorical anxieties that pierces one to the core. “Do you hate the weekend/ ’Cause nobody’s calling?” Horan asks, reaching the listener with unexpected thoughtfulness.
Although not particularly groundbreaking, these moments of vulnerability give his vocals a chance to shine, particularly on the moving, reflective track “San Francisco.” Another noteworthy moment that highlights his vocal range is the sweet love song “Black and White,” presented as an ode to his future wife on their wedding day. Horan might be largely unpredictable, but he occasionally delivers terrific surprises.
“Still” closes the album with one of the finest solos Horan tracks to date. It’s a simple, romantic confessional, led with one delicate acoustic guitar, the echo of a country twang filling the air with something worth believing in. As Horan reflects on his past relationship, he realizes his feelings have never faded for his past lover, singing: “If honesty means telling you the truth/ Well, I’m still in love with you.”
The seesaw between convincing vocals and sketchy musical production shows progress for Horan as a solo artist. This is a musician who proudly wears his heart on his sleeve, even if the jacket might have been chosen by someone else. Heartbreak Weather pads its way through every different phase of relationship-based grief, inevitably letting some moments of catharsis feel more impactful than others.
In its smoothness and commercial consistency, it’s probably the closest thing to a 1D album that any of the original band members have created in their solo endeavors. Horan has come up with a format that blends his innately conservative musical tastes with perfectly manicured, mainstream pop in Heartbreak Weather. It isn’t an entirely lost cause, but one which Horan can build upon for a more inspiring future project. The results of Heartbreak Weather are occasionally noteworthy but almost too obvious, lacking any spark of originality or genuine electricity in Horan’s heavy storm of love and heartache.
Contact Salma Gomez at [email protected].