“Call me Icarus,” croons 25-year-old Zayn Malik, halfway through his sprawling 27-track second solo album, Icarus Falls. “I guess I flew too close to the sun / Myth’ll call me legend, that might be why / In my Yves Saint Laurent / Got the bees comin’ in for the honey I supply… I’m in the right place at the right time.”
It’s an odd choice of alter ego. Though Malik was always the sulkiest member of One Direction, the playful Icarus was Daedalus’s “smiling boy”. Icarus flew towards the light, while Malik winces away from publicity and stopped touring. And while poor, young Icarus’s overreaching ambition saw him crash and burn, Malik has enjoyed the most successful solo career of any of the 1D graduates.
Well, “enjoyed” might be the wrong word for the Bradford-born perma-pouter. But his moody album Mind of Mine (2015), The Weeknd-indebted R&B solo debut, shifted a lot of units and earned a level of critical credibility seldom achieved by former boy band members. A GQ cover story this summer proclaimed him the “coolest human alive”. Even NME likes him. As for being “in the right place at the right time”? Well, Icarus certainly wasn’t, and Malik clearly has been.
In fact, if Malik’s any character from Greek legend, he’s more like Theseus: the proud product of two cultures (British and Pakistani) and battling his demons. Having slain the 1D Minotaur that devoured his youth, he’s still wandering here around a labyrinth of murky, R&B sounds. Echoes of his past in 1D and tabloid love life bounce off the walls and pitch shift into warped enigma. So he addresses the time lost to bickering, “drugs and alcohol” at the height of 1D’s fame on the oddly upbeat “Good Years”, and turns down a tryst for fear of bad publicity on “You Wish You Knew”.
Malik will leave fans swooning with his maturing soulful falsetto, melismatic yearnings that check his heritage, and muzzy, midnight mutterings. The shining thread of his voice will lead them through passages of hope, dope, seduction and evasion. There’s nothing here that would stand out a mile from the many Weeknd-alikes on the the Radio 1 playlist. But it’s all decent, mid-tempo stuff.
The first 12 songs glow with standard praise for a natural, respectful love (rumoured to be about his on/off model girlfriend Gigi Hadid) but things take a darker turn after Malik’s mythical musings (over muted pings of electric guitar) on “Icarus Interlude”, which concludes with him singing that he “lied to the liars”.
Both sonically and lyrically, things get more interesting from this point. There are Spaghetti Western guitars and haunting whistling on the Nancy Sinatra-sampling ”Good Guy” (on which he warns the ladies he’s anything but: “bang bang / I know you’re mine”). There are comic-book space metaphors and slap bass on “Sour Diesel”. To the pounding of a muffled drum, he plays with The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on his own song of the same name.
“Scripted” begins with church bell chimes and a piano melody that twirls, Strictly-style, around the classic romance of “As Time Goes By”, before Malik drifts into a stoned, synth-washed plea to go off-message. “No Candle No Light” (featuring a rather restrained Nicki Minaj) deals with a dying relationship over a tropical EDM beat.
Closing track “Too Much” (feat Timbaland) suggests that it’s in love – not in music – that Malik’s a real Icarus: “I guess I want too much ... too much / I just want love and lust / You just can’t love me back.” Although, if the gossip columnists are right, then Malik is back with Hadid. Who knows. By the time Malik’s fans stagger, blinking, back out of this woozy musical maze, they’ll probably have a month’s worth of 3am scandals to catch up on.