Niall Horan was once blessed with the gift of perfect timing. In the tradition of boy bands before them, One Direction ran with precision, releasing one No. 1 record per year and, like clockwork, following that up with one sold-out stadium world tour. After five years, the first crack in their inevitable fracturing arrived when Zayn Malik left the band on March 25, 2015. But even their demise was meticulously scheduled: 1D went on hiatus exactly a year later. Now a soloist, Horan has had the reverse fortune—his timing is almost comically bad. Horan’s debut album, 2017’s folksy Flicker, teased a Fleetwood Mac influence and arrived a few months after Harry Styles’ self-titled debut solo album, also Fleetwood-inspired, did it better. Again this year, Horan’s sophomore album, Heartbreak Weather, a pop record full of breakup ballads, was released on Friday the 13th during a global health crisis, making it difficult to promote. He managed an appearance on The Late Late Show and a rare good session of Carpool Karaoke. But while his fans have remained loyal, the general public largely ignored his release.
That’s a shame because of how much Heartbreak Weather, an unpretentious project, builds on the solo identity Horan introduced to the world on Flicker. Much like 1D albums, which sought to include the biggest bangers in the shortest space, Horan has divorced himself from a single genre or time period. The title track is ’80s-pop revivalism, not unlike material on the Jonas Brothers reunion album. On “Bend the Rules,” Horan lowers his voice a few octaves to a breathy husk—instead of leaning on his old school Americana tendencies, he laments over a Tobias Jesso Jr. tune. And “Put a Little Love on Me” could be a b-side to Lewis Capaldi’s blockbuster hit “Someone You Loved.” Like Capaldi and Ed Sheeran before him, Horan’s most effectual musical moments are found in his painfully earnest songs, delivered over radio-friendly, intergenerational, inoffensive hooks. If there wasn’t an element of self-deprecation, it would register as cringeworthy.
Horan described this release as a concept album, even though any album about love could arguably be considered a concept album. Each track covers the end of a romance, told from various perspectives (his, her’s, an outsider’s), through celestial metaphors and lyrics centered around the weather. The worst is “New Angel,” about a woman who occupies “too many hours in the night” but also appears only to serve Horan. “I need a new angel/The touch of someone else to save me from myself,” he sings. His commitment to theme, elsewhere, is at times impressive, at times redundant: on “Black and White,” falling in love is a “starlit night” and hopefully, one day, a “sunny afternoon;” on “Small Talk,” the “moon” moves to “her eyes,” which means it’s time to have sex.
This is the most explicitly sexual Horan has ever been on a record, and it’s still relatively PG-13, like One Direction in its final days. When “morning” comes on the fantastic “Nice to Meet Ya,” Horan is alone—though he’d love to take the object of his affection “somewhere warm, you know j’adore la mer.” By the time “Everywhere” appears on the album’s second half, the breakup is fresh, and the weather is deceptive; it “feels like the world locked us on an island.” “Heartbreak Weather” is the site of the breakup, and there’s “lightning coming from your eyes.” Horan’s satisfying melodies and soft rock anthems rescue the listener from diving too deep into clumsy lyricism—the way a One Direction single once could.
“No Judgement” is Horan’s best Sheeran impression—it’s “Shape of You” without the marimba—and the album’s closer, “Still,” highlights Horan’s ability to compose an impactful acoustic ballad. It sits somewhere between One Direction’s final album, Made in the A.M., and the songs of his favorite band: The Eagles. The standout track is still the lead single, “Nice to Meet Ya,” an Arctic Monkeys-channeling, 2000s Brit-pop jam with a chorus as cheery and polite as Horan’s public persona: “Nice to meet ya/What’s your name/Let me treat ya/To a drink.” The song leans heavily into Horan’s natural levity, and its swagger is something the rest of the album would benefit from.
One Direction members run the gamut of solo careers, from the critically acclaimed (Harry Styles) to the irredeemably panned (Liam Payne). If that creates a fine line, Horan is off the spectrum. His eclectic pop-rock radio songwriting most recalls the group that launched their careers—and during One Direction’s reign, their songs were largely ignored by critics to make room for coverage of their romantic histories and dedicated fanbase. (Louis Tomlinson’s 2020 solo debut, Walls, has a number of 1D-inspired tracks, too, including “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” and “Perfect Now,” but for the most part, Tommo settled into Oasis-worship.) Horan’s album took what 1D could’ve been had they stayed together and evolved it for the modern-day.
If Heartbreak Weather were divorced from its subject matter, it would be the kind of low-stakes, joyful pop album that connects beyond a few weeks of consistent Top 40 radio play. Instead, it’s a collection of well-produced songs and warm vocal performance, some of which would make for good 1D b-sides.