B-Sides and Beyond: Exploring the Work of Niall Horan


Somewhere on the internet is a candid photo taken at 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho, London; its black and white spillage zapping the psychedelic hues just a door handle away. Outside where the punk scene’s Mad Hatters with thinly pointed mohawks patrol their siren heartbeat streets. The high-strung backtrack to inside thoughts poetically vomited onto loose granite in cruddy spray paint. Such a cozily shut division, yet if a 17-year-old opened Photoshop to play with its lassoed scissors, then Niall Horan would end up like one of those abstract, scrapbook collages. Entirely unsymmetrical. Guitar strumming silhouette (in tune to his PFP since they’re image sourcing just as a morally good graphic designer will) glued next to a checkered jacket styling on a John Mayer 1960s doppelganger. Then the subtle nod to a pierced loop calling to stygian eyeliner.

When asking Horan himself which one he seemingly belongs in, the Herald Sun has their genre radar straight, “I was going through a punk rock phase when I was 15; I like punk rock now, but I wouldn’t pick up my iPod and go straight to it.” There’s a dead-silencing, full stop; it must mean he was mentally cycling through an alphabetized playlist, “I’d probably go to the ‘Mac and Crosby Stills and Nash and Jackson Browne and Tom Petty.” Yep! Within seconds, the refrigerator masterpiece is crumpled up in the trash for the exchange of Horan’s entirely Irish self slotting in next to Vince Taylor in a collared, white sweater also strumming along only with a stylish quiff. Or perhaps with a face shrouded by one of those furry windshield microphones, that’s half grey, half black. Ultimately, it does not matter; whether it’s 2i’s Coffee Bar or the Marquee Club … did you hear? This was where Christine McVie’s first performance in Fleetwood Mac took place! 

Horan’s discography is so radio-tuned into London’s infamous underground clubs that musicians who are chugging on Guinness beer during sad boy hours know about him—“He’s belting those notes out like it’s no big deal, that’s wild!” Jacob Restituto exclaims. Blake McLain tweets out, “My guitarist Alec is now listening to @NiallOfficial .. I’ve done it. I’ve converted my band.”—but bizarrely, a lot of people question who the hell he is outside of One Direction. Better yet, probably six feet underground at this point; cause of death: bleach. Horan muses to KISS, “People still think I’m the fella with the blonde hair, and I haven’t had blonde hair in about five years, so you’d be surprised.” Like you can’t search him to see his tousled, brown hair comically flowing onto Anne-Marie’s knitted dress?

Staff Photographer Nikki

What’s more surprising, his solo artist debut or what some call just-a-man-and-his-guitar was supposed to initially start through an upload of “This Town” onto SoundCloud. Interchangeable to a university student frantically waiting to send their assignment in through Turnitin when the desktop clock turned to exactly 11:59 p.m. Then came the three-seconds dramatic pounding on Billboard Magazine’s Mainstream Top 40 charts’ door. The saucy laundromat rendezvous “Slow Hands” woke up its neighbors with its number one declaration. Soon becoming that track that had even Taylor Swift prancing alongside him during her Reputation Stadium Tour’s Wembley Stadium show. “We could do this, baby, all night,” she croons to a crowd drenched in purple, taking over the second verse with the sort of prowess a Swiftie could expect from “Dress.” 

However, the lightning strike of excitement, or honestly discomposure depending on how well you deal with forlorn storms, flustered with a sky caught between nearing daybreak on the cover for his second album penned Heartbreak Weather. “Nice to meet yaaaaaa,” he sings. Every prolonged stretched-out vowel is reminiscent of a laid-back Australian thinking someone can decipher what they mean when “Yeah, nah” utters out of their casually shrugging shoulders coordinated to mouth. Finally, asking, “What’s your name?” This would have been an interesting question to throw back to one of him. In three rectangle boxes for his “Nice To Meet Ya” alternate video, he spends five seconds confidently shaking his butt, which is such a stark contrast to white-knuckle fisting his guitar during the Flicker era. Where exactly had he been during the studio sessions stretched between its closing out and this explosive frame of greyscale? So, too, with teasing, muted Instagram stories acting as the insider to his now third album.

Say, hypothetically leaving behind a cassette player with seven old personal favorites. Which tracks would explain his artistry? While we can’t collectively ask him — need to state that it’s not through a lack of conspiring a response through a sneaky, meme-able tweet quickly shooting to its rightful trending topic status. Rather, he literally won’t soberly pass at least one slinky tune-up! Remember when Twitter user @horansalbum used their 280 characters to write, “Niall what song is underrated on Heartbreak Weather besides Put A Little Love On Me?” And without even a direct, he rattled off the whole Heartbreak Weather album? All 14 individually that if they were items on a conveyor belt separated through a checkout divider, then you’d certainly move to another register. So, asking him for seven would be a near headache-inducing, yet curled up smirking for fear of being caught laughing, task. 

Nevertheless, the first one up on the perfectly curated underdog list we’re now titling, ‘please don’t spam my DMs with a string of beetroot red, ‘&$!#%’ mouth-tape wearing emojis for not listing your fave,’ can be found nudged just below track 11 on Flicker. Or it’s acting as the lo-fi background noise for the intrusion of spotting a girl in Pret a Manger. “The coffee’s cold,” he sings matter of factly on the gritty, guitar crescendo “Mirrors.” Eyes wavering from the menu’s specials revealing itself over a squared metal table to notice the entering of our third character, a charming, politely donned waiter. “He turned around and said, “I hope you know, you’re beautiful. Have you ever been told?” What’s interesting about this number besides its strategic production, dispelling from the quiet reverence of allowing a peaceful, lullaby melody to set up the scene to elevating the chorus into a three-layered exchange, is its lyrics. 

The metaphorical shift from “The coffee’s cold” to “The skies are blue;” it’s a complete difference in temperatures, going from a stormy London day to a sunny summer zen because she’s found her strike of confidence. A quality effortlessly fitted on Horan, probably hung up in his everyday staple wardrobe alongside a white teased-out vintage 1995 Harley Davidson t-shirt. Still, scrolling back up from the second verse is another standout line, “She hides behind the face nobody knows.” Yeah. Okay! There were mentions of him being undeniably understated; can’t rewrite that, but the difference between a girl who’s clearly going to recite the story of inspiring one of his songs for a lifetime and him is that there are likely times he wishes he could fade into the background through a mirage of stan accounts. 

Heck, he’s quite literally having a fight with the embodiment of patience; think the holographic orange clock from Loki that, while having a twinkle in its window-cut eyes, also holds an attitude creeping into your insomniac nights. Actually, for the most part, the early 2000s rock time warp “Dear Patience” is an endorphin release. You know, a friendly relationship with the sentiment, hearing guitar strings harshly solitary plucked before being led into the final chorus where there’s a panting coming from the drums coinciding with the rhythmic pattern of an erratic heartbeat. The repetition of “Hey” is sort of akin to pleading as if the feeling isn’t even showing him any attention, which adds up to him being without it. It follows through with a “Can you hear what I’m saying?” Then to “I hope that I find you, my dear” in the bridge, showing he’s treading up to it carefully with a stock of romantic pet names in fear it’s going to run away from him. Of course, our Disney-styled happy ending is within the folky outro supplied through a couple of strings and fiddle when he’s finally able to embrace it. 

Staff Photographer Nikki

Is it much of a sunset veiled drive off in a blue-tinged 1965 Ford Mustang if those same strings coupled with the unexpecting, slight guitar follow him home? See, according to Google, whistling symbolizes contentment. So, while not being the typical, planned ending, maybe the whistling outro for slow-burn Heartbreak Weather closer, “Still,” is what you’d harmonize with closure. The kind he finds walking away from a dunzo relationship down a dark road, kicking pebbled rocks with the soles of his athleisure wear trainers, complaining, “I just don’t know why; stars won’t shine at night.” The stars, in all of their destined prestige, hung up in the vast galaxy that a painter had to needle prick every little detail; sometimes even they’re shooting, glorious when looked at, but it fades so quickly. He agrees, “We should be shooting for them stars of gold.” It suits the level of isolated poetry that the origins of this track are molded into 20 minutes spent alone as his team chowed down on some food in the kitchen. Telling Buzzfeed, “It was the first time … in a long time where everything that came to my head fitted into a melody.” 

One of those melody-jarred earworms is the howling, sexed-up “Small Talk,” he admitted to an overpopulated 41.3 million frenzied fans on Twitter. Seriously, pack all of them invisibly into Royal Albert Hall, and he’s sure to sell out 23 shows with the remaining dispersed into a half-full 24th. Oh, wait. He already did that — 125,000 tickets for a virtual concert! So there, with the brightly shone fleck of blue just behind him, he drawls out with the raspiness ticked all the way over to Sophia Bush’s sultry tones, “She’s been lookin’ at me all night.” He tenses up. “I’m terrified; I know why, baby.” Language decoders can easily cast their eyes onto the ‘she’ and ‘baby’ of those two sentences.

Yes, they’re different people, but more than that, his significant other is laser-focused on his wandering eyes, and while that’s a fact he knows too, it’s not enough. Singing, “Oh, I see the moon in her eyes.” Even in the pre-chorus, he’s creating the context that folks have animal instincts sometimes, visually painting London’s hunting ground, a tightly fitted space of lit-up bars, underneath the atmosphere of teaming pumping bass and laid-back kick. However, his conscience sneaks back in during the chorus, reassuring her. “Tell me what you want because you know I want it too,” he says, pent-up frustration anchoring into his tiresome bones from an argument that’s justifiably nibbling at the midnight hour. 

The same triangular formation follows through the funky “New Angel.” In the courthouse hammer-ruling the winnable case of this track deserving more exposure, we have two witnesses. One is the music blog Idolator who’s leading statement is “Fans who did take the ride, however, were blessed with slinky, ’80s-inspired pop gems like “New Angel.” It’s not too late,” when having it as a listing on their article named “20 Songs That Should Have Been Singles”. The other is us. We must have passed out from the motley light show syncing with the music’s beats as it was last seen on a wanted poster after missing from Royal Albert Hall’s setlist. What’s interesting is that it also sneakily fits into him admitting he’s somewhat at fault; over the jazz-spotting white noise, he confesses, “A touch of someone else to save me from myself.” If that isn’t a red flag, then what is? 

Mhm, unreleased tracks? Forget the sorcery of a downplayed official song; it’s when playing friends with the perfectionist backspace that we who could barely muster up a promotional jingle become the revivalists. Clumsy hits are seen as bangers. Bridges are definitely heading to Architectural Digest. And, well, Horan, the ushering ins of “Hello, Conor” works as the perfect spoken-word mid-pause. First heard during a live stream dated March 17, 2020, the bitter cocktail garnished with the nuances of Bond “Champagne Lovers” shows off his lyricism in brilliant imagery. “Rolling the dice just to feel the thunder,” he bites out. Turbulent, unpredictable; the pile-up of stale words attached to the element that has now bled into wondering if anything good will come out of them staying together. Perhaps a definite not; their love tryst now found “Deep in the heart of a downward spiral.”

Staff Photographer Nikki

Finally, if our unspoken aim is to catch the attention of the locals, then we’ll let the orchestral rendition of “So Long” speak for itself. His 11 years in the music industry shifted down into 3 minutes and 24 seconds; though, arguably, his RTÉ Radio Studio 1 performance was in 2019. There is a jumbled takeover of harps, electric guitar, and horns, only some of the instruments treading to treat its climax; then, of course, his perfectly pitched voice. “You know I kept a place for you in my mind, and I know you did the same ’cause you’re just that kind,” he serenades; so, maybe there isn’t someone in that room. Everyone around him seemingly appears twice his age.

However, it conjures up a sense that his life is a giant tale, and he’s pressed a bookmark to one girl, one chapter tangled in the simple theme known as fate. Later on, he shyly states, “Now we got nothing to prove.” His way of saying they’ve found it. All of the desaturated, muddy sentiments washed away to something that can blossom. Overall though, it’s generally about having feelings for someone that while going through peaks, you always ultimately find them as your wish-fulfillment. So, you’re stuck wondering why did it have to happen at this precise moment? In this divine timing? 

Niall Horan’s forthcoming album is currently sitting pretty alongside other no-daters. 

Joining the Nerds and Beyond team back in February 2019, Rachel Finucane graduated university with a Bachelor of Arts (Humanities) majoring in Screen Arts. She’s been passionate about all things television and film-related since penning her first Neighbours fanfiction aged twelve, before inevitably taking that pen to dabble in fashion, sports, and music. She can be spotted on Twitter at @rachelfinucane_.

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