Harry Styles review: Singer uses power of positivity to delight Brixton Academy

By Katie Razzall
Culture editor

  • Published
Harry Styles on stage at the Brixton AcademyImage source, Lloyd Wakefield
Image caption,
Harry Styles has gone from One Direction to one of the world's biggest solo pop stars

Towards the end of his One Night Only set at London's O2 Academy Brixton on Tuesday, his first UK concert in four years and the first British outing for his acclaimed new album Harry's House, Harry Styles spotted an 18-year-old called Jess in the crowd.

I had chatted to her just before the gig started, as intrigued as Styles by what she was holding.

"Jess's sign," he declared to the 5,000-strong audience, "says, and I might paraphrase, 'My boyfriend slept with my best friend'."

Cue loud boos, a chorus of solidarity from the mainly female crowd, most of whom have followed him since his One Direction days.

"That's brutal," he told Jess, to screams of delight. "What I will say is, you're better off without him, clearly."

The audience went wild, Styles dedicated his next song to her - a mellow, acoustic track called Boyfriends - and, for one night only, the student and part-time supermarket worker became the most envied, and most celebrated, woman in the place.

That interaction sums up why Styles is so beloved.

Image source, Lloyd Wakefield

He's the male friend every woman wants, the one who's on your side. His USP - aside from his zeitgeisty challenge to gender norms and obvious good looks - is emotional intelligence. Unlike boyfriends, who, as the lyrics to his song of the same name go, "think you're so easy, they take you for granted, they don't know they're just misunderstanding you".

Harry's House is his third solo album, and the one he's described as "the most me". It also may be the one where his appeal finally catches up with his media profile in terms of sales.

The synth-infused, nostalgic As It Was became America's most streamed single in a day, with 8.3 million streams, when it launched in April - and he may clinch the top three spots in the UK singles charts later this week.

You could say he's the first top-league solo male pop star the UK has produced since Ed Sheeran.

Image source, Lloyd Wakefield

The album has only been out for a few days, but as he skipped and strutted from side to side across the stage, in front of an outline of a giant neon house and a six-piece band (again majority female), Styles was confident that this crowd would already know the lyrics by heart.

They didn't let him down, as again and again he directed the microphone their way. There was relish in their rendition of the slightly risque last line of the poppy, joyful Cinema. "I bring the pop to the cinema," he sang. "You pop when we get intimate," they trilled back.

Styles has been touring since he was 17, first with One Direction and now alone - and he's good at it. In Brixton, he was enjoying himself at the start of a tour that will take him to stadiums across the UK before more concerts in Europe and the US.

But this is not rock 'n' roll as we once knew it.

In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, Styles said he doesn't drink alcohol while on the road and sleeps for between 10 and 12 hours a night. A pin-up for more sober times.

He also shared that the months he spent locked down in Los Angeles and London during the pandemic were the longest he's been in one place in 12 years. (His family have previously talked about how he went to the X Factor audition aged 16, became a part of One Direction and "never came home again".)

His message after Covid, he told the Brixton crowd, was: "We go out and be nice to each other. Be kind, the world needs it." But in some ways, the pandemic may have brought some relief and space for reflection after 12 tumultuous and hectic years - and it shows in this joyful, thoughtful album.

Image source, Lloyd Wakefield

Aside from pop, Styles has the fashion crowd bought in. Sequins, feather boas, cowboy hats and polka dot dresses - he has worn them all. For this one-off special in Brixton, though, he opted for white trousers and a spotty T-shirt. But many of his fans had dressed up. Pink abounded. Twenty-three-year-old Abi Kohen described her sparkly outfit to me as "like a disco ball had a baby with an emu that was pink".

She and her friend Georgia May-Campbell, who live in London, have spent thousands of pounds on tickets to five Styles concerts through the summer, with outfits already planned for each one. They met training to be nannies, bonded over their love of One Direction and have already seen Styles in concert more than 20 times.

Even more dedicated were the fans who turned up at the Academy a full two days before the gig. Simona Todissco, 28, arrived at midday on Sunday with her friend Marika Candiotti, who'd travelled from Manchester (others told me they'd come from south Wales, Spain, Glasgow, Colchester, Lowestoft and Norway). Tents weren't allowed in the streets of Brixton, but a local woman took pity on the pair and gave them some blankets as the rain poured down.

That's the kindness Harry Styles was after, which he delivered on stage too. I lost count of the number of times he said thank you to the audience. He dedicated Love of My Life, the tender final track of his album, to "each and every one of you". And he stopped the gig twice, after noticing a fan getting into distress in the sweaty scrum.

Image source, Lloyd Wakefield

He is so polite - a pop star to make his mum proud. (She was at the gig and introduced to huge cheers.) But his appeal lies in his authenticity.

North Londoner Gavin welled up as he explained to me how Harry had made his anxious teenage daughter "whole again" with his positive messaging. "Like Bowie taught me about sexuality and it being OK," he said, "he's made a big contribution."

Styles brought the night to a crescendo with the rock-filled Kiwi from his debut album, and Jess left on a high, still brandishing her Boyfriend sign aloft, but less devastated by her ex's betrayal after that pep talk from her hero.

"He said I don't need him," she told me. "And if I'm going to take advice from anyone, it will be Harry Styles."

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