Album Review: Louis Tomlinson — ‘Walls’

Posted: by The Editor

When One Direction announced their hiatus at the end of 2015, the world took out their magnifying glasses and awaited how each of the members would progress past the mammoth presence the supergroup had bathed them in. Over time, a particular light fell onto the tender tenor of the group, Louis Tomlinson, as his voice always provided the edge that elevated the group beyond the generic boyband model. Just as other wildly successful boybands like *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys had Chris Kirkpatrick and Brian Littrell, One Direction had Tomlinson whose voice differentiated the band from others in their field. So, when Tomlinson announced his long-awaited debut record, Walls, back last Fall, there was an air of intrigue that soon accumulated for where this voice would journey, solo.

Tomlinson experimented with a handful of singles over the years with “Just Hold On” and “Back to You” tapping into the EDM market while his highly underrated track “Miss You” dabbled in the foundations of pop-punk to solidify his sound as an independent artist. Yet, it’s when the British-bred singer began digging into his roots that he found a familiar fire that shaped the overarching soundscape that is found in the bulk of Walls. It’s obvious that Tomlinson found comfort in Britpop, and if anything, it is a strong starting point for a debut as his voice sits naturally atop the genre.

Opening the record is electric track “Kill My Mind” which feels as though one has shaken up a fresh soda can and popped the lid. It’s a rowdy fizz full of a hodgepodge of 90’s alternative influences, and the longer one sips on Tomlinson’s biting vocals and rambunctious, guitar-led production, the better it tastes. Following the tune is “Don’t Let it Break Your Heart,” an instant crowd-pleaser detailing the strength of healing through adversity, relying on it’s endearing chant-like structure to push the track to new heights. It’s easy to imagine this song rumbling a venue as the fans scream out its words. Bleeding into the piano-entrancing “Two of Us,” we see Tomlinson at his most vulnerable, lyrically and vocally, as the song details the passing of his mother at the end of 2016. Almost as if he is cracking his ribcage open to allow others to find collective healing through the process of grief, the track is more uplifting than sorrowful—it being Tomlinson’s words and personable voice to thank for that. The title track, “Walls,” being a nod to Oasis, was well-received by critics and fans alike as Tomlinson breaks down the walls that his trials and tribulations have built up around him over the years. It’s rare to find a title track that can firmly stand on its own, yet this one does just that.

It’s when we fade into the meat of Walls, past the singles, do we start to see Tomlinson’s artistic identity flourish. “Too Young” acts like a melancholic lullaby that is sang too tenderly to cross. A simple acoustic that highlights the delicate vocals he was famous for in One Direction. “Habit” easily presses rewind on the era and takes a trip back to the alt 90’s, providing what could be the blossoming of a softer Everclear influence. Tomlinson showcases his impeccable ability to flow words overtop a sonic landscape here, which follows into a couple other tracks, providing a storytelling technique that has been challenging for his fellow bandmates to crack as he confesses to his love interest that they’re a habit he can’t break. It’s difficult not to hear this breezy, guitar-driven tune and not think of how seamlessly the chorus could blend into a 90’s, coming of age film that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

“Always You” gives way to lighter moods in musicality as Tomlinson’s voice bounces over lively guitar plucking, providing the same word flow as “Habit” just more staccato. The building climax compliments his tone, being a hidden talent in his repertoire, landing with a big melodic chorus so gravitating that one will be humming it to themselves long after the record’s over. Then, there’s “Fearless,” a surprising power-ballad that is hard to forget. Structured around the age-old phrase, “let’s stay young forever” it would’ve been easy for this theme to fall corny rather quickly, but instead, the track is a haunting recount of forgotten youth and being lost in nostalgia. Tomlinson’s vocals are at their peak here, following the foundations of simple verses and light instrumentals, allowing his isolated vocals to take center stage to deliver an iron-clad performance.

The two most personal tracks on the record, though, are saved for last. Being the most reflective of his growth going forward as an artist, “Defenceless” and “Only the Brave” display his duality in the sonic landscape. The former is a powerhouse earworm that represents everything good about a pop song. Bringing one of the catchiest bridges to the mainstream in recent years, “Defenceless” soars with poppy chords and heavy drums that’ll have one itching to listen to it on the open road. Tomlinson teamed up with Andrew Jackson and Duck Blackwell for the latter, “Only the Brave.” An interlude track that came to Tomlinson as a demo, it resonated with him enough to mark it the star of the show as the album’s closer. It taps into an indie market that suits his voice well as the song’s corners feel burnt and tinged. The stunning religious subtext that could be metaphors for both his relationship with another and with fame is only a little over two minutes long, but it acts as one powerful ending.

Walls works because it’s a culmination of Louis Tomlinson’s best assets—the distinct edge of his vocals and his commanding lyrical prowess. Tomlinson’s voice has a knack of making a listener feel as though he’s sitting across the kitchen table, speaking directly to them. It’s personable, tender, comforting, and it’s endearing. His peaks as a vocalist breathe through his debut, nailing airy falsettos and parading his raspy edge. Lyrically, whether it be him tackling adversity in the title track with, “These high walls never broke my soul,” shedding the tightly constructed public image tied to his boyband past in “Habit” with, “I took some time ‘cause I’ve ran out of energy of playing someone I’ve heard I’m supposed to be,” directly asking a friend the heavy question, “[are you] strong enough to get it wrong in front of all these people” in nostalgia-chasing’s “Fearless,” or sticking true to his clever symbolism found in “Defenceless” that details, “We’re sleeping on our problems like we’ll solve them in our dreams / we wake up early morning, and it’s still under the sheets,” it’s obvious that Tomlinson is a true songwriter. All in all, it’s in the conjoined efforts of these two aspects of his artistry that lays a solid foundation for Tomlinson moving forward. Walls has proven that he has what it takes to stand on his own, and looking towards the future just like the record’s closing lines, Tomlinson has shown that “it’s [his] solo song, and it’s only for the brave.”

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Hope Ankley / @Hope_ankleknee

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