Is former One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles singing about the end of the world or just the end of a relationship on his solo debut, “Sign of the Times”?
The song—a plaintive, emotive piano ballad that myriad music critics are comparing to David Bowie, stylistically speaking—doesn’t answer that question definitively.
But whether Styles is crooning about a personal apocalypse or a violent global one, it’s pretty clear that an end of some kind has come.
Harry Styles covers a lot of ground in the first seven lines of this song.
He begins with a consolation of sorts, telling (presumably) a female he cares for, “Just stop crying/It’s a sign of the times.” And why should she stop crying? Well, it sure sounds as if she’s making a (perhaps premature) trip to the Pearly Gates: “Welcome to the final show,” Styles tells her, “Hope you’re wearing your best clothes/You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.”
Still, Styles seems ambivalent about her (and perhaps his, and maybe everyone else’s too) heavenly departure as he adds, “You look pretty good down here.” Then he says cryptically, “But you ain’t really been good.”
But if his friend hasn’t been good, neither has humanity in general, it seems. That line serves as a grim segue to a bigger narrative, one in which Styles laments an endless cycle of violence: “We never learn, we’ve been here before/Why are we always stuck and running from/The bullets, the bullets?”
Despite that apocalyptic brooding, Styles musters the fortitude to insist—amid tears, bullets and fears of the end of the world—that everything is going to be OK. “Just stop crying,” he says. “It’ll be alright.”
Then again, maybe not: “They told me that the end is near/We gotta get away from here.” In which case, “Have the time of your life/Breaking through the atmosphere.” Weirdly enough, it almost sounds like he’s describing the Rapture.
But even if the worst should happen, and the world goes up in flames, he still seems to suggest that some sort of afterlife reunion is in the cards: “Remember, everything will be alright/We can meet again somewhere/Somewhere far away from here.”
For all the talk of bullets and death and hints about heaven, though, the last verse of the song spins it yet another direction. Maybe it’s not about the apocalypse after all. Maybe “Sign of the Times” is just a very, very metaphorically fraught breakup song.
“We don’t talk enough,” Styles observes. “We should open up/ … Will we ever learn?/We’ve been here before/It’s just what we know.” In other words, the pattern in question isn’t some sweeping historical generalization about humanity’s tragic, magnetic bent toward violence. No, it’s just about one couple’s dysfunctional ways of relating.
Whichever interpretation of the song listeners lean toward—and the 23-year-old British singer isn’t saying which is correct—it’s clear that Harry Styles’ debut post-One Direction effort is swinging for the metaphorical fences. If “Sign of the Times” is a breakup anthem, it’s certainly been shorn of the teenybopper trappings one might have expected from Styles’ former band. If it’s an apocalyptic parable of sorts, the song is much closer to something we might have expected from the likes of Imagine Dragons.
Either way, what “Sign of the Times” encompasses is an achingly melancholy meditation, one that paradoxically articulates tremendous loss and quiet hope at the same time.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.