Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
Former members of boy bands and girl groups often have trouble shedding their band’s image when they embark on a solo career. Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams never quite got out of the shadow of Destiny’s Child. Joe Jonas never took off solo without his brothers. Unlike Harry Styles and Niall Horan—arguably the most successful ex-members of One Direction—Louis Tomlinson took a bit longer than his ex-bandmates to succeed on his own. His debut album Walls has been several years in the making, but it’s definitely worth the wait.
Tomlinson had been laying the groundwork for his first solo album since the 2016 release of the EDM single “Just Hold On” with Steve Aoki. After another collaboration with Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals as well as a solo single the following year, Tomlinson sat it out for nearly two years, until “Two of Us” and “Kill My Mind”—the first two singles from Walls—arrived in 2019. These were a noticeable difference from his earlier solo singles, which had been mostly electropop-focused. “My expectations and aspirations are all shaped around my experiences,” he shared on social media last year. “As much as I try to stay realistic I couldn’t help but crave a ‘hit’ single. It’s because of this that I’ve spent so long on this album, trying to fit into Top 40 radio when in fact maybe I should start with what I love and work from there.”
In One Direction, Tomlinson was known for his witty personality and for co-writing many of the group’s best songs, so it feels only natural that it would have taken him longer to grow past his boyband self. Some personal upheavals also made that even harder; in 2016, his mother passed away from cancer, with “Two of Us” a tribute. Two weeks after the song dropped in 2019, the Tomlinson family was hit with another tragedy when his sister died. Reflecting on his earlier solo work in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the singer remarked that while he loved doing EDM collaborations with Steve Aoki and Bebe Rexha, those didn’t really represent him as an artist. “It took me a second to get here,” he said. “A lot of people, when they’re first starting out, they develop in the background, trying different things. But obviously, I had to do that a little bit more publicly. That’s definitely been challenging at times. So I’m relieved to have an album that I’m really proud of.”
Walls, which combines elements of indie rock, soft rock, indie pop and more, is an introspective look at growing up and finding yourself—and your voice. While his former bandmates were blessed with quick hits and mainstream attention, Tomlinson has more than benefitted from hanging back, taking his time and finding himself. “I took some time ‘cause I’ve ran out of energy / Of playing somebody I heard I’m supposed to be / But honestly, I don’t have to choose anymore,” he sings on “Habit,” emphasizing that it’s not always easy to progress from teenage superstar in an era-defining boy band to a young adult solo artist without some bumps in the road.
On the love song “Too Young,” the singer could also be indirectly addressing the difficulty of letting go of the past—that is, One Direction: “I’ve been looking back a lot lately / Me and you is all I’ve ever known / It’s hard to think you could ever hate me / But everything’s feeling different now.” And on “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,” he reminds us all that being a person can be a nightmare, and that’s okay. “You can’t do it by yourself / Oh, whatever tears you apart / Don’t let it break your heart.”
While Tomlinson has a history of glossy pop hits with One Direction, he’s addressing some more mature subjects on Walls, such as anxiety, mortality, and self-integrity, which also sets the album apart from the solo work of other ex-1D members. Yet such ideas aren’t always taken seriously in a pop music world that prioritizes groundbreaking sounds and more provocative themes. Even with the album’s stellar production, Tomlinson stands out by stressing the importance of taking your time, honoring yourself and your self-worth, feeling your feelings and finding your footing as you go. After all, we have to wobble before we stand.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Walls: “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,” “Two of Us,” “We Made It,” “Too Young,” “Walls,” and “Habit”