Ever since his days on The X-Factor with former band One Direction, Niall Horan has been known for his wholesome charm and jovial attitude. While his charm and sunny disposition have come through in his solo ventures as well, Horan’s most recent record “The Show,” released June 9, explores more moodier sentiments and nostalgic sounds.
The opening number “Heaven” sets the tone for the rest of the album, starting on a high note with its lush production consisting of airy, layered vocals, bringing to mind an angelic choir reminiscent of the song’s name. The album overall sees Horan moving into a more vintage pop/rock sound.
Other songs, like the previously released single “Meltdown,” have a more indie rock vibe characterized by a fast-paced kicking guitar. One of the most standout tracks on the album, “Save My Life,” has a synth backing evoking quintessential ‘80s pop music.
This synth-pop style is similarly prominent in former One Direction bandmate Harry Styles's discography, who gravitates towards a more retro-pop sound.
“You Could Start a Cult” strays away from the pop sounds of other songs with its acoustic guitar, reminiscent of Horan’s debut album “Flicker.” While the harmonica in the middle seems a bit out of place and drifts the song a little too far from pop and much closer to folk, the pared-down production allows the singer’s crooning voice and lyrics to be the star of the show.
“Science,” one of the last tracks on the album, has a similarly simple production in comparison to the more upbeat pop tracks. This power ballad sees Horan at his best, serving as one of the highlights of the album. The song is reminiscent of some of Coldplay’s early 2000s power ballads, such as “The Scientist,” with powerful, emotional vocals layered on top of piano and a grand orchestra.
One of the hallmarks of “The Show” is Horan’s songwriting. Angsty romance seems to be a recurring theme throughout the record, with feelings of love underpinned by insecurity.
While “Heaven” chronicles a grand love conquering all with lyrics, “If you and me go up in flames / Heaven won’t be the same,” other songs delve into a more introspective view on relationships shaded by doubt. In “Never Grow Up,” Horan sings, “Never wanna go to sleep / Feelin’ like an oceans in between our sheets / Starin’ at the ceilin’ with your back to me.”
The final track “Must Be Love” exemplifies both the hopeful and jaded views on life and love that coexist on the project, with lyrics such as, “If it feels like love / Then it must be love,” immediately followed by, “I got a first degree in being my worst enemy / I got a PhD in always running away.”
While sonically cohesive, the recurrence of upbeat pop tracks plague the record with predictability. As a result, Horan misses the opportunity to delve into more experimental sounds within the realm of retro pop, something that could’ve complimented the more mature themes he explores.
Aside from the aforementioned “You Could Start a Cult” and “Science,” most songs stick to similar feel-good, ‘80s vibes. At times, this trend results in an overly-produced hodge-podge of sonics mirrored by indie and pop artists with a lack of identifiable style to claim the sound as their own.
“The Show” is one of Niall Horan’s best and most mature albums yet. Horan’s emotional depth in his songwriting make it clear he has grown more confident in his sound and identity as a songwriter and a musician. While the album’s sound could be predictable, it’s evident that Horan’s music exploration has paid off, serving to transition his sound from the folk-laced debut record “Flicker” to a well-executed mix of synth-pop and rock. It may not be revolutionary, but with its nostalgic pop sound, evocative vocals and vulnerable songwriting, “The Show” is pop music done right.