Album Review: Harry Styles Does Pop His Own Way On ‘Fine Line’
Harry Styles does things his own way. The One Direction alum proved just that with the release of his self-titled solo debut in 2017. In the sometimes formulaic world of pop, the 25-year-old refused to be pigeon-holed into a sound that didn’t ring true to his personal taste. Of course, his methods aren’t entirely unfamiliar to music fans. While he bucked current trends, the hitmaker used the LP to show off his appreciation for classic rock. However, questions were raised about what his own personal sound was. Well, he pushes things further and builds out a soundscape that is distinctly his own on his sophomore effort Fine Line.
Out December 13, the collection provides the opportunity to make music for today while keeping his toes well-rooted in the past. Like with his iconic style (perfectly displayed in the album art), Harry pulls inspiration from a variety of classic sources. But he knows how and when to break the rules. Better yet, he imbues every element with so much personality that it’s impossible to lose his spark in the mix. Expertly written and evocatively performed, the end result is a cohesive body of work with few outliers. This is the sort of project that will set him up for a lengthy career and shouldn’t have any problem providing a wealth of hits.
Harry opens the LP on a strong note with lead track “Golden.” Produced by Tyler Johnson, the full-bodied anthem captures the heady rush of falling in love. “Loving you’s the antidote,” the “Kiwi” star sings. However, he pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the risks of giving your heart away. “I’m out of my head, and I know that you’re scared because hearts get broken.” Regardless of the risk, the end result here is so intoxicating that it would be all but impossible to resist the urge to dive in blindly.
Although Harry alluded to Fine Line being all about “having sex and feeling sad” in a Rolling Stone profile, the project never verges on obscene. References to sex are cleverly embedded in the lyrics so readers are able to fill in the blanks on their own. Take note, Liam Payne. One of the moments where things seem to line up is on the explosive “Watermelon Sugar,” which is allegedly an ode to oral. Aside from possibly being a significantly toned down tribute to “Woohoo,” the track is one of the most engaging on the album and instantly evokes memories of warmer months. What’s not to love?
3. Adore You
Along with Tyler Johnshon, Kid Harpoon does a good deal of heavy lifting on the LP. The latter takes over production duties on “Adore You,” which has the distinction of being a personal favorite. Laying his voice over lush beats, Harry sings about an attraction that verges on obsession. “You don’t have to say you love me. You don’t have to say nothing. You don’t have to say you’re mine,” he sings. “I’d walk through fire for you. Just let me adore you.” There’s a stark beauty that shines through levels of desperation in the lyrics. More importantly, how does anyone say no to that prospect when it’s coming from Harry Styles? Talk about making mistakes.
4. Lights Up
Lead single “Lights Up” is a bit of an outlier on the project. In that it strikes me as being more about self-actualization than a relationship. “Shine. Step into the light. Shine. So bright sometimes. Shine. I’m not ever going back,” Harry chants over one of more modern-leaning productions. Although the surprise release doesn’t perfectly blend with the other material, it’s presence is still very welcome on the tracklist and provides an interesting direction that I’d love to see further explored in the future.
And so begins the heartbreak chapter of Fine Line. If “Watermelon Sugar” is arguably about having sex, then “Cherry” dives deeply into the sadness associated with a breakup. In particular, it finds Harry dealing with jealousy while watching his ex move on with a new partner. “I confess I can tell that you are at your best. I’m selfish so I’m hating it,” he freely admits over somber strings. There’s a dagger-sharp sense of pain in his voice as he moves into the chorus. “Don’t you call him Baby,” he pleads. “Don’t you call him what you used to call me.” Who cannot relate to this situation?
The gradual descent turns into all-out downward spiral on “Falling.” Another Kid Harpoon production, this one deals with Harry’s own guilt associated with the breakup. “I’m in my bed, and you’re not here. And there’s no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands,” he mourns. What elevates the soul-crushing ballad and sets it apart from standard fare is his unflinching exploration of guilt and shame. “What am I now? What if I’m someone I don’t want around,” the hitmaker asks on the chorus. That level of self-awareness and the vulnerable vocal line make it a clear highlight.
7. To Be So Lonely
Never be fooled by a deceptively breezy production. Even the sunniest beats can disguise a breaking heart as evidenced by “To Be So Lonely.” Laying his voice over a bittersweet soundscape designed by Johnson and Kid Harpoon, Harry (a self-proclaimed “arrogant son of a bitch”) addresses the pain of bringing his ex back into the fold. You’d think he’d welcome the opportunity. However, it’s only reopening old wounds and making the process of grieving harder. “Don’t call me Baby again. You got your reasons. I know that you’re trying to be friends,” he croons. “It’s hard for me to go home. Be so lonely.”
A 6-minute epic, “She” finds Harry lusting after a mystery woman over electrified strings. “She lives in daydreams with me. She’s the first one that I see, and I don’t know why. I don’t know who she is,” he dreamily coos. His voice floats into its upper register before paving the way for an extended instrumental break. Based on the track’s very smooth vibe, I can all but guarantee this is going to go off in live settings.
9. Sunflower, Vol. 6
Greg Kurstin takes over production duties on “Sunflower, Vol. 6.” With its layered vocal lines and psychedelic strings, the track takes on a distinctly retro vibe. On it Harry preserves memories of happier days. There’s a beauty to the approach, and the lyrical imagery is particularly vivid here. However what truly sets it apart is the ebullient outro lush with whoops. This also marks the moment that we move beyond the darkest hold of heartbreak into a brighter future.
10. Canyon Moon
The good vibes created by “Sunflower, Vol. 6” are fostered on “Canyon Moon.” Building up to a sing-along chorus, this sunny bop instantly creates memories of happier days. That sense of nostalgia spills over on the simple chorus, which is perfectly delivered. Even better is the whistle line that comes next. Everything about this feel-good moment provides a respite from the heartbreak listeners endured a few songs ago.
11. Treat People With Kindness
“Treat People With Kindness” has become a signature phrase for Harry and his fanbase in recent years. So it makes sense that the message would be expanded and set to music at some point. However, this is a case where the sentiment is welcomed, but the execution gives me pause. All together the track (produced by Jeff Bhasker) verges on being overly twee. The redeeming qualities are Harry’s vocals, which remain sublime and the addition of a tambourine. Otherwise, this is one that I’ll likely be skipping over.
12. Fine Line
Harry Styles is no stranger to extended run times. While pop radio tends to favor a brief but effective 3-minute track length, the crooner stretches the rules. “Sign Of The Times” clocked in well over the 5-minute mark. And “Fine Line” marks the second time on his sophomore effort that he breaks six minutes. For me, the LP’s title track succeeds where “Sign Of The Times” missed the mark. Instead of giving the feeling of stretching into infinity, the moody closer continually builds in conviction. Eventually it reaches an emotional pinnacle before fading away in ethereal waves.