Louis Tomlinson is not Charlie Puth. That much should be clear to anyone who’s ever heard their respective musical outputs — Puth‘s a silken crooner, while Tomlinson’s earthy tenor elevated and energized the all-out rock numbers in One Direction’s catalog. But that distinction wasn’t necessarily clear to the American producers and songwriters he worked with after his band went on hiatus in 2016. After a while, Tomlinson said he grew tired of them nudging him toward a more R&B/pop-influenced sound as he began his own solo journey.
But he still gave it a try. He teamed up with Bebe Rexha and Steve Aoki for a pair of electronic-pop hits rooted in more contemporary trends. Then Tomlinson went quiet for a bit, popping back up earlier this year to share an epiphany. “I’m not here to compete with the likes of Drake and Ariana Grande,” he wrote in a note shared on social media. “I’m here to make music I love and make my fans proud to say they’re a fan.”
This is the same artist who grew up loving Amy Winehouse and Arctic Monkeys on the radio, so it fits that his newest music sounds like a collection of polished guitars, big drums, and massive choruses that simply swallow you whole. “Guitar music is massive in the North of England,” Tomlinson recently told MTV News, “so I think I’m always just trying to kind of find a middle ground between where I’ve come from and what I know the fans really want to hear.”
On new single “We Made It,” which dropped Thursday (October 24), Tomlinson even makes a point to make the difference explicit: “Singing something poppy on the same four chords / Used to worry ’bout it, now I don’t no more.” In other words, this is who Louis Tomlinson is — after a few years of soul searching and weathering personal tragedy — and this is him giving it to you on his own terms. “I was kind of making music for other people and kind of relying too much on other people’s opinions,” he said. “So I was kind of trying to reflect that in that verse.”
“We Made It” is the third taste of Tomlinson’s upcoming debut studio album, Walls, due out January 31, 2020. He led off this year with “Two of Us,” a heartrending ode to his late mother, and followed it up in September with the Britpop-channeling “Kill My Mind.” In that video, Tomlinson fronts a band onstage at a club, bathed in crimson light — a proper rock-star (re)arrival. The song’s distorted guitars and surging pop-rock sound found Tomlinson closer to childhood radio favorites in Oasis than on anything since “No Control,” a beloved One Direction cut he co-wrote and sings lead on. “I tell you what: I’m forever getting pressure online to perform ‘No Control’ when I come around to doing my tour,” he said, “so I probably will put it in the setlist.”
He should. His “Kill My Mind” band setup wasn’t just a construct for the video; Tomlinson’s got a group of musicians backing him up to make every TV performance and venue gig as live an experience as possible, something he said is important to him. As he revealed this week, he’s got a 43-date world tour ahead of him in 2020, the first time he’s ever hit the road as a solo artist.
It makes sense that he’d want to be backed up by a live band: This is a guy who spent the earliest part of our phone call praising “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” (“Every time I hear it, it makes me feel good. I fucking love that song.”) He also shouted out Sam Fender, Gerry Cinnamon, DMA’s, and Catfish and the Bottlemen, despite their testy history with Tomlinson’s previous band. “Absolutely love them, which is quite ironic because they did once chat some shit about One Direction,” he said. “So I went off them for about 18 months, and then they came out with a new album, which was sick.”
Tomlinson’s not a rock god in the “We Made It” clip. In his words, it’s a “more cinematic” video than “Kill My Mind” and acts as a continuation of the loose story introduced in the latter. He’s not the protagonist, a fact he seems to revel in, and acts more as as a Greek chorus haunting the fringes of a doomed love story. Tomlinson filmed it with director Charlie Lightening at an English seaside arcade and boardwalk. By the end, there’s another tease: yet more to the star-crossed twin leads’ love tale, to be told in Tomlinson’s next video.
Though he’s not the focal point of the visual, “We Made It” finds Tomlinson singing some of his most personal lyrics yet. Here, he digs into his perceptions of his own past a bit removed from the initial whirlwind. It’s hard to hear the line “don’t know why they put all of this on us while we’re so young” as anything but a direct nod to his six years spent in the biggest boy band of the 2010s, a time he’s since been open about. “When we were trying to write for One Direction, we were trying to write things that relate more to four or five guys in the band, so naturally [the songs are] a little more general and little bit less specific,” he said. It’s easy to feel, say, the lovelorn haze in “Fireproof” because of how widescreen the lyrics go.
But writing a Louis Tomlinson solo song? Where every note and word will be attached to only one voice, one face, and one name? “I’m much more of a perfectionist,” he admits. On these early singles, ahead of the forthcoming full story on Walls, we’ve finally gotten to hear what that sounds like.