As It Was (Music Review)

Film still of Harry looking somber from music video for “As It Was” on YouTube

In this world / It’s just us / I know it’s not the same as it was

I watched the music video for this song a few weeks ago and I confess that on the first listening I didn’t think much about it. I was impressed by the cinematography and creative production of the music video, and I liked the percussion in the song, but that was about it.

A few days later, I found myself singing the chorus in the shower, over and over. I started listening some more, and soon became obsessed.

“As It Was” was released to Spotify on March 31st, 2022 and has over half a billion plays, and at least 50 of those are from me listening on repeat last night. There was something about the energizing drum and bass lines combined with the irresistibly catchy synth phrase that repeats itself throughout the choruses of the song that had me absolutely hooked.

The musical construction of the song is incredibly simple, but that isn’t to say that it’s lyrically bereft. The song starts out with a soundbyte of a child saying, “Hold on, Harry, we want to say goodnight to you!” and you can almost imagine a tired and bedraggled Harry turning away from his path to a late-night recording studio session to come back and say goodnight.

It’s cute.  

Then enters that earworm of a synth phrase, which cuts off briefly to make room for the first verse.

Holding me back / Gravity’s holding me back / I want you to hold out the palm of your hand / Why don’t we leave it at that?

This is a clear entreaty to a lover who is drifting away. The implication is that he’s reaching out to someone who isn’t necessarily reaching back.

Nothin’ to say / When everything gets in the way / Seems you cannot be replaced / And I’m the one who will stay, oh

It seems like at this point the relationship has fallen apart.  With the following prechorus, we have the introduction of some supporting synths.

In this world / It’s just us / You know it’s not the same as it was

Then, that catchy synth phrase comes back to bring us into the chorus.

As it was / As it was / You know it’s not the same  

You would think that this song would lose points for all the repetition, but there’s some desperation conveyed in Harry’s words here. Many of us have been in a romantic relationship where it felt like it was us and our partner against the world, only to have that relationship begin to disintegrate despite all attempts to recover it. The words “as it was” convey longing, a nostalgia for a time that is lost and can’t be recovered, not just in terms of the relationship, but in terms of life in general (which comes up later in the song).

The second verse presents a shift in reference. In the first verse, Harry is addressing his lost lover, but in the second verse, he is addressing himself—from the point of view of people who are worried about him—in his state of loneliness and grief.

Answer the phone / “Harry, you’re no good alone / Why are you sittin’ at home on the floor? / What kind of pills are you on?” / Ringin’ the bell / And nobody’s comin’ to help / Your daddy lives by himself / He just wants to know that you’re well, oh

Shifting the vantage point in a song like this isn’t particularly common, and it provides a uniquely personal look into the aftermath of a broken relationship. Life does go on after heartbreak even if it can be difficult.

Then we come back around to the prechorus and chorus, which come along unchanged, solidifying the feeling. After this, there’s an interesting bridge before the finale.

Go home, get ahead, light-speed internet / I don’t wanna talk about the way that it was / Leave America, two kids follow her / I don’t wanna talk about who’s doin’ it first

Here Harry is decrying the seemingly aimless nature of competitive day-to-day life while mourning the future he cannot have. Before his grief was past-focused and now it is focused on an impossible, idealized future.

Then unpredictably, we get…

The bells.

The prechorus and chorus ring out one more time, almost literally with the introduction of these beautiful bells. The drums also ramp up, and for the first time in the song, the listener is introduced to a sense of hope. This isn’t at all by accident. “It’s not the same as it was” but there’s always the possibility for a better future.  

Film still of Harry Styles smiling, from “As It Was” video on YouTube.

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