Niall Horan has found his sweet spot.
After One Direction’s disbandment in 2015, Horan aspired to become a solo star with his debut soft-rock album “Flicker” in 2017, in which he pays homage to two of his biggest influences: Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. The album was a success by all accounts, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 and recording Horan’s biggest post-boy group hit to date, “Slow Hands.”
However, the 2020 follow-up has been aggravated by a mix of genres. “Heartbreak Weather” felt like Horan was chasing another radio hit, and not one of his four singles has yet made it to the top 50. Then, COVID-19 paused the world, canceled its planned promotional tour, and effectively ended the era. before it has a chance to take off.
But the dreaded sophomore collapse is now behind Horan. Her third album “The Show” (released on Friday) combines the authenticity of “Flicker” with the bouncy tunes of “Heartbreak Weather” and makes her strongest announcement ever as an artist.
“The Show” opens with its lead single “Heaven”, a festival-ready song featuring Beach Boy-like harmonies and references (“God Only Knows,” Horan hums during the chorus, borrowing the name of the 1966 surf classic). He acknowledges that a relationship can either “rise in flames” or turn into pure bliss; A theme that continues throughout the 10-piece project about love, anxiety and what happens when the two are intertwined.
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Sometimes, 29-year-old Horan outdoes himself. Cathartic feels like she’s “sinking, overthinking” on “Science,” while top-down “If You Ever Leave Me” warns a lover who’s already got one foot out the door, “I hope you know you’re punishing me for a life on my knees.”
The meteoric speed of “Meltdown”, the record’s second single, is a sonic epitome of the speed at which a fragile and timid mood can spiral out of control. But even when “a broken glass completely collapses,” Horan reassures himself that “this too shall pass.”
And it is. Backed by a piano and string section, the captivating cinematic title piece embraces the unpredictability as Horan learns to “hold on, be ready for the journey” and trust the path he’s taking.
Evidently, his girlfriend of three years, Amelia Woolley, helped him search for his soul. In the synthesis of 1975-esque “Save My Life” (“Since you walked in / I see a new light”) she sings about the ecstasy of love at first sight, and takes infatuation to another level as she promises. Chasing a partner “till tomorrow” called “You Could Start a Cult”.
The tender “Never Grow Up”, meanwhile, finds Horan enjoying the nirvana of romance, hoping that when he and Woolley get older, they “still drink” and “fight for bands” like they’re “back to the bar.” Love.
But even when things seem to be going well, Horan realizes that he is his “worst enemy” in the introspective “It Must Be Love”. She describes herself as an “expert in overthinking things” in relationships and undoubtedly struggles to “keep things simple and follow through”. [his] heart.” This is perhaps the most sincere confession on an album full of them.
Frankly, Horan is still trying to unravel the “Show” of life before the curtain call.