Niall Horan – Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff ★★★

The career trajectories of the five former One Direction members were pre-set before the band even drifted into an indefinite hiatus. You only have to look back to 2012’s soppy, Sheeran-written ‘Little Things’, to see that Niall Horan’s transition from teen popper to troubadour was bound to be inevitable. If tonight’s sizeable sold-out crowd is anything to go by, Horan has struck gold with his formula – an escapade into radio-friendly rock appears to be the solution to the career-changing predicament that the breakup brought on.

Oriental rug? Check. Low-key lighting? Check. Striped shirt? Check. These are all tropes of the new Niall Horan, so to speak, who is now not a beloved boy band member but a mirage of a soft rock soloist, formed from the Americana-tinged realm in which he exists but does not shine – yet. More archetypal than authentic, it is evident that Horan is still trying to find his feet in his new field, only emphasised further by last year’s ‘Flicker’. His debut proved to be an all filler, no killer retrospective scrapbook that featured pictures of his past (‘This Town’) and anecdotes about the joys of being alone (‘On My Own’), soundtracked to woozy, wobbling acoustic numbers that lacked consistency and felt oh-so-safe.

Even his live set doesn’t seem to involve risk-taking – besides a fair forgery or two. ‘On The Loose’ almost bleeds the guitar line of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ dry, with its buoyancy entrenched into the bassline. ‘You And Me’ and ‘Paper Houses’ both yearn to amount to something greater, backsliding into insipid balladry and just falling short of the big-league bravura that could have given these tracks a kick up the backside. Nonetheless, the eponymous title track ‘Flicker’ accentuates the fact that silence is golden; the somewhat stifling screams are traded in for tears as the crowd becomes encapsulated within the maudlin moment, following his request for eyes to close and phones to be put away. Obviously, you can’t rely on the entirety of the arena to comply, but just enough follow suit to create a sense of serenity.

However, Horan possesses an innate flair for showmanship; his chutzpah is admirable. His sheer presence alone is enough to elicit hysteria from the thousands, something which proves to spur him on, allowing for a promise of potential to shine. Guitar-laden throughout, he holds the crowd in the palm of his hand as each subsequent word is sung back with unalloyed fervour, bar his subpar, yet still credible cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’.  ‘Slow Hands’, Horan’s most successful single thus far, shines a spotlight on his newfound, charisma-charged croon, hitting home that he clearly loves the music that he is making.

Credit needs to be given where it is due; Horan may not be at the apotheosis of his artistry yet but a mature, more developed form of himself is currently riding shotgun next to him. The road is long and winding – he just needs to swap seats and let his future self-hit the accelerator.

Words by Sophie Williams.

Image courtesy of South Wales Guardian. 

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