Zayn’s public persona is irreparably characterized by those topics of endless media intrigue. He’s an alum of One Direction: our generation’s most popular boy band. He’s on-and-off with Gigi Hadid: one of our generation’s most recognizable supermodels. And he has just left his Muslim faith, though he long bore the weight of its politicization. He’s a “pop star.”
But this label reflects little understanding, and defies his increasing absence from the cultural role. His music is something else, and seems to operate with relative independence from the fixtures of public perception. On his second album, “Icarus Falls”, his whole persona is almost unrecognizable.
“Icarus Falls” represents much continuity from “Mind of Mine,” the artist’s debut. In my review of “Mine” from 2016, I described its style as an “amorphous and tense mix of hip-hop, R&B, and new-wave electronic pop,” which feels apt for “Falls” as well. This album too is inescapably taut: on “Icarus Interlude,” a bridge between the album’s two halves, a plucky bass never lets us relax to the gorgeous vocal. And Zayn again bears his stream-of-consciousness lyrical style, with its occasional stumbles. “Optimus Prime” is a hard name-check to work into a song inconspicuously, it turns out.
The continuity between albums is deliberate. As Zayn has retold, and commentators have noted, some of Falls’ songs originate from writing sessions for “Mine.” Zayn retains producers and writers like duos Saltwives and MakeYouKnowLove, and the powerhouse producer Malay, an alumnus of recent albums from Frank Ocean, Lorde and more.
Malay’s perhaps most relevant work is on Lykke Li’s most recent album, last year’s “so sad so sexy,” which he washes with a sound reflecting that of Falls. But Malay’s soft pop aesthetic feels particularly apt here, working with an artist whose voice easily inhabits the leftover space.
Indeed, if there’s anything that distinguishes “Falls” from “Mine,” it’s ease. The album’s length suggests a certain confidence; few artists would test their label overlords with a 26-track, 90-minute record. “Flight to the Stars” is led by a series of a cappella couplets, a token of an album where the production says little. And if the concept, which claims to trace a rising Icarus in pursuit of love, and then a falling, heartbroken Icarus, feels a little loose in application, that’s because it is. Zayn reads as indifferent to the pressures of the industry and album reviewers to conform to concept or simplicity. He’s secure in its sprawl.
And Zayn doesn’t conform to the sound of the modern pop star. His preference for guitars is clear, even as they’ve fallen out of genre favor. As the album mulls familiar themes of love and heartbreak – and resentment, which Zayn does especially well — there are few processed synth hooks and more big vocal lines, a decidedly old school touch. In today’s context, few of his songs work as well as top 40 fodder as they might have 10 (or even 20) years ago. Perhaps because it so eschews most pop trends, but certainly owing to its nonstop emotional fervor, the album feels personal.
When a pop musical moment does emerge from this architecture, it’s all the more rewarding. Zayn’s pop romp on “No Candle, No Light” works best because we need release from the intense subversion of typical easy gratification to which the album and artist default. “Talk To Me,” a dance tune with clear roots in modern Afrobeat, is similar fun. So while there’s little boundary-pushing on “Falls,” and it runs overlong (songs like “Common”, an amusingly self-descriptive dud, deliver little), the album works nonetheless, buoyed by earnestness and skillful oscillation between tension and release.
But that’s the music, and sometimes the public persona catches up. Zayn’s struggle with anxiety is long and open. In his tour for “Mine,” anxiety led him to cancel shows, though publicly shyness long preceded the tour. In the messy and low-promotion rollout of the album, fans questioned whether his heart was really in it. No tour has yet been announced for Falls, and any shows that do result are unlikely to feature meet-and-greets or any other hyper-exposed pop star standards. He’s not going to be consumed except on his own terms.
The industry, of course, is and always has been crushing in this way, inducing anxiety in its talent and then punishing those who crack under that stress. Rising young stars, a type that fit Zayn only a few years ago, will almost universally tell you as much. It’s not just the labels, though the labels are a problem, or reviews like this one, which can be callous; it’s the fans. They demand, they demand, they demand, and when the music is slow or insufficient, and the shows cancelled, and interviews sparse, we get more stories about which 1D band member said what about the ex-Muslim boyfriend of Gigi Hadid.
Contact Josh Seawell at jseawell ‘at’ stanford.edu.