The former One Directioner’s second album is most enjoyable when he remembers his tenure as a teen idol
Harry Styles, Fine Line ★★★★
When Harry Styles released his eponymous debut solo album in 2017, the former One Direction boybander surprised fans with a sound soaked in reverence for the rock’n’roll of the past. While other popstars laced their hits with synths and four-to-the-floor beats, Styles’s debut single “Sign of the Times” was a near-six-minute, Hunky Dory-era David Bowie-style missive about maintaining hope during this bleak part of history. Its heavy ‘70s pop-rock references were unlike anything on radio, and it, quite rightly, debuted at Number 1 in the UK.
The album, however, lacked innovation. Like the single, his references were obvious – Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, The Beatles and more Bowie – and he did a good job paying homage to his idols. The problem was it felt too constructed; in a bid to distance himself from the pop of One Direction, Harry picked up a guitar, bought some second-hand vinyl and said: “I’m authentic now.”
The result was something a little beige and uninspiring, like the work of someone trying too hard and at odds with Styles himself, whose approach to celebrity has always felt knowing and audacious.
His second album, Fine Line, is less taut and the allusions to his musical forbears, while lingering, feel less potent. Opening track “Golden” has a hazy yet fervent quality, the melodies wistful over chugging percussion and guitars, while “Watermelon Sugar” with its allusions to oral sex is deliciously frothy.
Styles has clearly dialled down the intensity in his songwriting, perhaps a result of his work with English songwriter and producer Kid Harpoon, who co-wrote nearly every song on the record. Lead single “Lights Up” is woozy, both in its production and its structure, and there’s a cool breeziness to “Canyon Moon”, a song that shows Styles’s debt to the legendary music scene of Laurel Canyon.
‘Glimpses into Styles’ life are fleeting and only intensify the poetic vagueness of most of the album’s songs’
Yet this playfulness isn’t always successful. “Treat People With Kindness”, named after Styles’s mantra, is lively enough, but its message feels hollow, Styles adopting the role of evangelical preacher at the song’s conclusion, with unfortunate results. The bubbly “Sunflower, Vol. 6”, aside from some ‘70s-style harmonising, is incongruous with the rest of the album, the bright pops of an organ more akin to frenetic energy of Vampire Weekend than Styles’s vintage stylings.
Instead, Fine Line is most enjoyable when Styles remembers his tenure as a teen idol. “Adore You”, with its cascading vocal harmonies, has all the hallmarks of a pop classic, its percussion more rounded and radio ready. It’s sexy and funky and suits Styles more than he’d perhaps like to admit. There’s also some top tier pop balladry, too: “Falling” is Styles’s best ever vocal performance and “She”, with its chorus sung entirely in falsetto and lullaby-like melodies, has a timeless, cinematic quality and lingers with you long after its finished.
The latter is one of his most lyrically accomplished songs. As is “To Be So Lonely”, which also happens to be the record’s most experimental and complex song. Styles is at his most raw, as he dubs himself jealous and “an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s wrong” over a wildly complicated guitar riff. Likewise, album closer “Fine Line” paints a more vivid portrait of the man behind these songs. Nevertheless, these glimpses into Styles’ life are fleeting and only intensify the poetic vagueness of the album’s other songs.
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Like his debut, Fine Line, at times, can be a frustrating listen, especially when there are flashes of the sort of artist Harry Styles could be. It’s not as weighed down by aspirations of credibility, nor the pious devotion to his heroes, but it still feels a little like an album by an artist still figuring themselves out.
The songs, however, are good – some, like “Lights Up”, “Adore You” and “She” even great – and Styles delivers them with conviction, his innate charisma enticing and seductive. And on those moments when he remembers that he’s actually one of the world’s biggest popstars, there are glimmers of true brilliance.
Fine Line is released on Friday 13 December