Listening to Louis Tomlinson’s solo debut, Walls, is a bit like hanging out with the high school quarterback who stayed in his hometown after the rest of his class moved away. It wistfully brings to mind One Direction’s glory days, grown faded around the edges by time. The quarterback is still charming, his tales still rousing, but you kind of hope maybe, next year, he’ll move on — he’s certainly talented enough to do so.
It’s hard stepping out of the boy band formula, for sure. But Harry Styles has been evolving nicely into a delightful eccentric who gets his dulcimers from the same woman as Joni Mitchell; Zayn Malik his transitioned to R&B-flavored pop. It’s fair to say Louis can break free as well. That doesn’t happen enough on Walls. Songs like “Perfect Now,” echo One Direction’s 2011 hit “What Makes You Beautiful.” “You say to me your jeans don’t fit/You don’t feel pretty and it’s hard to miss/I wish that you could see my point of view,” Tomlinson sings, a sentiment that seems an odd move backward in the age of Lizzo. “I guess some queens don’t need a crown,” is almost heartbreakingly endearing when stacked up next to Billie Eilish, who donned hers in 2019 with a scowl.
When Tomlinson addresses a song to “you,” it often seems like the same You he and his mates were singing to years ago. You hear it in “Defenseless” (“I come running to you like a moth into a flame”), Habit” (“You’re the habit that I can’t break”) and “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” (“Whatever tears you apart/Don’t let it break your heart”). The gang vocals that permeate many songs also make it hard to place the album in the here and now.
On some tracks, Tomlinson seems to acknowledge the lost glory days with 1D — albeit through the language of romance. “I’ve been looking back a lot lately/Me and you is all I’ve ever known,” he sings on “Too Young.” “Don’t know why they put this on us when we’re so young,” he muses on the triumphant “We Made It.” That coupled with the album’s more 1D-like tracks makes for a bit too much nostalgia for anyone who’s not a super fan.
That’s not to say the whole album is a bust. The Oasis-esque “Kill My Mind” is a standard rocker, and a fun one. Tomlinson co-wrote some of One Direction’s classic tracks (“No Control” “Fireproof,” “Midnight Memories”), and here he’s best when he writes for, and about, himself — not for a phantom quintet. “2 of Us” is a lovely tribute to his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2016. The lyric “The day that they took you, I wish it was me instead” is painfully real. Title track “Walls” opens with some nice poetry (“Nothing wakes you up like wakin’ up alone”) as does the folky, acoustic standout “Only the Brave” (“All the lonely shadow dances from the cradle to the grave”).
It’s clear Tomlinson has what it takes to finally take the leap and move out of his musical hometown. Here’s hoping he has the guts to let go and realize that those salad days are getting a bit wilted.