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Album Review: Niall Horan’s The Show

By Ansharah Shakil, June 21 2023

When One Direction crushed the hearts of all their fans by going on indefinite hiatus in 2016, shortly after they had devastated their fans by announcing Zayn Malik’s untimely departure from the band in 2015, the faint silver lining was that all of the band members would continue to make solo music. And while they all split into varying genres, every band member has, at this point in time, released at least one album. In the case of Niall Horan, it’s now three albums, with The Show having released on June 9. 

In 2017, Horan released Flicker, which remains an impressive debut album, memorable for its heart and warmth. Singles “On the Loose” and “Slow Hands” took turns sharing the spotlight on radio play, though the more innovative and interesting tracks on the album, like “Mirrors” and “Seeing Blind”, aren’t typical pop or soft rock fanfare and therefore were less noticed by mainstream charts. Horan’s 2020 Heartbreak Weather was as good as his first album — except in an unfortunate series of events, it came out March 13, right as the pandemic and quarantine officially began. Horan, naturally, cut off plans for his tour and hit a stall on the production of his next album. 

On paper, three years in between his first and second album, and then again in between his second and third album, doesn’t sound too bad. One Direction cited how overworked they were as one of the reasons they went on a break, after all. But reading Horan’s comments about the cancelled tour, it’s obvious that he never expected it. Heartbreak Weather is an album made for a tour, messy and exhilarating, meant for the sense of connection to be found in a sweaty, crowded concert venue — but it never got one. Maybe that’s why The Show is reminiscent of a concert setlist, up-tempo and slower songs layered on top of each other, Horan’s voice relaxed and intimate enough for audiences to feel like they’re listening to him perform. 

On the surface, the 10 tracks on The Show don’t seem to depart much from Horan’s previous sound. It’s an introspective album, full of emotional ballads, which makes sense — it was written primarily during the pandemic, and as a result has a sense of quiet tranquillity to it, of comfort. The lush production and mellow percussion are well done, but Horan’s vocals and lyrics are what distinguish the album. He’s solid throughout, belting out a charming falsetto on tracks like “If You Leave Me” and switching smoothly from melancholic to upbeat. Lead singles “Heaven” and “Meltdown” are two of the faster-paced tracks, but they still have the level of introspection spun throughout The Show

Out of all the tracks on the album, “If You Leave Me” and “Heaven” are immediately arresting and noteworthy. “Heaven” starts the album off with the retro and dreamy 80s vibes suggested by the album cover and emphasized through other tracks, like the perfectly constructed pop song “If You Leave Me”, which has guitars reminiscent of Tears For Fears and sounds like it belongs in an old-fashioned diner.

Another standout is the balmy and bright “On A Night Like Tonight”, with its vivid lyrics about summer skin, rain and hearts on fire. The harmonica solo on “You Could Start A Cult” is unexpected although not unpleasant, but the acoustics here are banal whereas other slower-paced songs on the album, like “Science”, are beguiling and evocative. It’s the sentimental and lovely piano outro of “You Could Start A Cult” that elevates this track into something genuinely moving. Having the upbeat synth-heavy “Save My Life” immediately launch into action as soon as the previous tender track ends is a clever decision because both songs express the same thing in different ways. But Horan doesn’t sound repetitive about romance in the songs which feature it. Instead, he covers a whole spectrum of what love feels like and what it can be, and ends The Show singing, “If it feels like love, then it must be love.”

Characteristics of Horan’s music are generally similar to his personality — grounded, likeable. There was so much of his personality poured into the lyrics of Flicker’s “On My Own” and Heartbreak Weather’s “Everywhere” that I find them easier to connect with than songs on The Show. Those albums might be messier, less polished, but I like them better for it. This album lacks stand-out songs found on the previous ones, even if the vocals remain affable and strong. 

The Show is the kind of album that really has to be listened to more than once to get a solid grip on the songs. I didn’t think much of it when I first listened all the way through, but the more I listen to it the more I find myself being won over. There’s a sense of steadiness to it. Time was taken to create it. Time feels slow and sweet, stretching like taffy through The Show’s half-hour. There’s no rush. Instead, there’s maturity and intimacy as the major themes of the album, with songs all gathered together in a thoughtful and reassuring fashion. It’s an album confident in what it’s set out to do, and if it isn’t quite like his previous ones — that seems to be the point.

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