Album review: Niall Horan departs from typical acoustic ballads in emotional narrative record
(Courtesy of Capitol Records)
By Paige Hua
March 13, 2020 3:59 p.m.
Niall Horan has traded in his acoustic tones for the electric atmosphere of “Heartbreak Weather.”
The Irish musician released his sophomore album Friday, and throughout the 14 tracks, Horan demonstrates a level of depth and artistic growth even as he operates within the usual tropes of love and loss. “Heartbreak Weather” tactfully steers clear of overused, cliche pop synths as each song is layered with intricate instrumentals and moving melodies. Horan is able to traverse the stormy seas of a relationship with a mature and seductive voice, resulting in a dynamic pop album.
The album opens on its titular track with an electric guitar and the beginning of a love story. Horan initially pairs his fiery voice with playful guitar riffs but quickly introduces a groovy bass that underlies the track. In finding the perfect balance between the two elements, “Heartbreak Weather” lays the groundwork for Horan to explore a blend of thundering rhythms and heartbreaking lyrics throughout the album.
Following an opening track that begs for a dance floor, Horan wastes no time jumping headfirst into a fast-paced relationship. “Black and White” sees the singer’s deeply emotional voice set against the rapid strum of an acoustic guitar, letting music reflect the whirlwind of desire. It’s no chore to fall in love with Horan as he promises, “There’ll never be another.”
This rapid pace sets the tone for two of the album’s most energizing songs, “Small Talk” and “Nice To Meet Ya.” It quickly becomes clear that the latter – released as a single in October – provides only a glimpse of Horan’s more mature voice and evolving musical style. “Small Talk,” with its heart-pounding drums and emotionally provoking riffs, solidifies Horan’s departure from his typical acoustic ballads.
But while the album’s first half demonstrates impressive vocal and artistic range, it’s the remainder of the record that gives way to a sonically cohesive story. Horan dives into the eye of the storm with “Arms Of A Stranger” as he details the rocky shores of a failing relationship in which his lover has “left (him) with nothing.” The narrative is underlaid with the rhythmic bounce of snare drums, making for a sensorially compelling track even as Horan finds himself “on (his) knees in the darkness.”
The gentle fingerpicking of an acoustic guitar leads Horan out of the dark in “Everywhere,” as the musician launches into the album’s most soulful songs. With voltaic rhythms layered with drumbeats and quick claps, Horan manages to capture both the devastation that follows an emotional storm and the hope that something new will rise from the ashes – and he does so with the deft hand of seduction in the remaining songs. The passion is tantalizing in “New Angel” in which Horan croons of “a touch of someone else to save me from myself.” Backed mostly with electric guitar, the song grows increasingly intimate and inviting even as it plays with explosive rock influences.
Horan doesn’t completely abandon his acoustic roots, though. He briefly returns to them as he closes out his album with the soft strums of “San Francisco” and the drawn-out notes of “Still.” Horan weathers the storm in these tracks, and they are two of the most lyrically powerful songs of the entire album. While lacking the thrill of stirring riffs and pounding drums, Horan’s smooth vocals touch on the cyclical nature of relationships. He arrives back at the place where he began, ending 14 tracks “still in love” with the same woman he began the album lamenting.
The somber, tenderly crafted ballad closes out “Heartbreak Weather,” successfully proving Horan’s presence as a dynamic artist. At only his second album since becoming a solo artist, Horan dances between bouncy pop tracks, teases the edges of hard rock and demonstrates his continued mastery of the acoustic love song. In blending all these elements, a majority of Horan’s 14 tracks distinguish themselves from the countless other stereotypical love songs on the radio.
Of course, the album also provides the artist room to grow. In drifting between talk of weddings and the beginning stages of burgeoning love, the Irish singer-songwriter might have perfected the balance between moving lyrics and technical rhythms, but the narrative cohesion of “Heartbreak Weather” leaves something to be desired.
Either way, Horan navigates the stormy seas of relationships with skill and an emotional depth seen through his vocal range.