Harry Styles, a singer who has successfully navigated one of the most challenging transformations in music – from boyband to solo artist – with greater finesse than even successful precursors like Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams, will undoubtedly be the subject of entire modules at performing arts academies.

His debut album experienced a slight hiccup as he came to terms with who he was and attempted to live up to his moniker by experimenting with a variety of anti-directional genres. But with 2019’s outstanding Fine Line, he continued down a golden Pacific Coast Highway of pop, remaining aware and focused even while his hazy sonic surroundings shifted all around him.

Since then, his provocative photo campaigns for Vogue and Dazed as well as the introduction of his beauty line Pleasing have established him as a post-metrosexual judge of modern manhood: muscular and tattooed yet dressing like a woman and being fluid to blur the lines between old binaries. Although some people who remember David Bowie or the New Romantics may have rolled their eyes at this and some people may have found his clothing to be just plain clunky, it is a sign of how limited mainstream masculinity is that his style unquestionably makes him an outlier, and it excites young fans to see this kind of thing for the first time.Most importantly, his music is so expertly created and instinctual that his costume feels like it belongs with it. Everything now feels finished on the first response rather than the second guess.

His reappearance on the buoyant As It Was is infused with that sense of freedom to dress, move, and sing however he pleases, as well as his fusing of conventional tropes like feminine prettiness and male vigor into something uniquely his own.

A clear point of comparison for this exceedingly fast song is the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, which likewise ticks along at 175 bpm and features a similar earworm instrumental loop. More broadly, Styles shares the Weeknd’s notion of an omnipotent pop artist riding their own creative wave. And the Weeknd’s own outburst to complete the chorus of Blinding Lights is extremely similar to Styles’ climactic “hey!”

As It Was is a richer blend than Blinding Lights, which paid explicit homage to a certain neon-in-rain 1980s aesthetic. Its melodies are set off by the jarring splash of a genuine cymbal. The song is infused with the bedroom indie-pop production of Gen Z performers like Clairo, and the tempo also made me think of the Strokes’ Hard to Explain. Perhaps the War on Drugs’ trademark steady backbeat is another touchstone (much like Shawn Mendes’ equally handsome new single, When You’re Gone, released this week), and it also feels illuminated by a Scandinavian light: the glowing softness of that region’s indie-pop artists, such as Jens Lekman. Styles knows it, too, as he closes the video with some Gene Kelly-like gymnastics. It’s the kind of song you can skip down the street to on a spring day, clicking your heels and grabbing up passing cockapoos for a loving spin.

That video, ah. While viewing the video, that sense of freedom is enhanced by Styles’ very loveliness, a man who seems to go through life on a separate track from the rest of us. Styles’ sheer, objective beauty is of course a large part of his pop star appeal and elevates his entire endeavor. Harry Styles is exciting to watch, which may be indicative of a culture that places such a high value on beauty or simply because I have a slight crush on him.

Lyrically, it is a fascinating, gossipy read that advances pop’s current mode of specific, personal storytelling rather than blustery metaphor (possibly Taylor Swift’s biggest songwriting legacy, and a style that Olivia Rodrigo, Adele, and the 1975 have all recently mastered). Harry Styles receives a call from a pal saying, “You’re no good alone. Why are you sitting at home on the floor? What kind of pills are you on?” The line “Leave America, two kids follow her / I don’t wanna talk about who’s doin’ it first” is undoubtedly referring to his partner, the mother of two Olivia Wilde.

The song’s key chorus line, “You know it’s not the same as it was,” suggests it is about the dissolution of a relationship. The video, which features Styles being stuck on a treadmill with his lover until being let free to bounce around the Barbican, strongly supports this theory. Is their relationship in trouble?

The pragmatism in “You know it’s not the same as it was” could also refer to that wonderful, if not frightful, moment in love when you realize your life has been forever altered. You are left unsure of his intentions due to the delivery, which alternates between being dejected and optimistic.

The more charitable interpretation is that Styles writes in a way that allows anyone to recognize themselves in his songs. The cynical reading is that Styles’ skill lies in hiding the content just enough so that everyone talks about it this way. In either case, As It Was is among his best works.