Harry Styles newest album, Fine Line, is a very immediate departure from his self-titled 2017 debut. However, despite this shift in direction, one thing remains consistent: Styles trajectory doesn’t involve consistency of style but an ambition to climb to the top of pop. Like his name suggests, Styles is interested in a plurality of soundscapes and doesn’t appear to be focused on finding his own singular style to live within. Perhaps this will be just one part of a very long process needed to outgrow his One Direction origins and become his own musical artist.
The album starts as “Golden” lets us initially be deceived into thinking that Fine Line is going to be a driving, feel good departure from the brooding but tender sentimentality we were introduced to on Harry Styles. After several listens through the record, it seems this track is really Styles attempting to begin a tumultuous journey with some positive self-talk. Unfortunately the mood doesn’t last long. The lyrics “…out of my head and I know that you’re scared because hearts get broken…” and “I don’t wanna be alone, you’re so golden” foreshadow a record filled with loneliness, regret, desperation, and a constant swing between believing he’s great and believing he fucked up big time.
Throughout Fine Line it becomes very rapidly apparent that Styles is quite troubled about a previous relationship, and is very very far from over them. Styles admits this on “Falling”: “and I’m well aware I write too many songs about you…”
“Lights Up” sees a Justin Timberlake-ish approach, most felt in the syncopated “ladadadaaa-da”s. “Adore You,” shows a desperation in his willingness to “walk through fire for you” if you “just let me adore you.” “Cherry” sees Styles attempt to censor his ex from calling their new lover “baby,” because Styles doesn’t want his ex to call their new lover by names they used to call Styles. Baby isn’t a nickname that is anywhere close to exclusive to any one person. On “To Be So Lonely,” Styles posits that it’s not easy to be a jealous person. No, but it’s also not easy to deal with one. While Styles admits on “Falling” that “the drink” and his “wandering hands” were problems for his past behavior. On “To Be So Lonely” he also suggests that you can’t blame him “Not even a little bit…” before going on to say that “I’m just an arrogant son of bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry.” I don’t even know what that line means exactly.
The best way to enjoy this record is to not try to think about the lyrics at all. Separating the sound from the words gives the tracks the best opportunity to be vaguely cohesive. This bittersweet tension between the music and the lyrics is the central theme of this record’s production. There is also something to be said about the possibility—and probable likeliness —that Fine Line’s cover art plays at Styles’s music and life as being a performance, possibly theater, although the fisheye perspective in some of the shots may suggest it is really actually more of a circus.
Fine Line is catchy. Styles is the 54th most popular artist on Spotify throughout the entire world. His album is good. “Watermelon Sugar” has a really great feel. The spacing between “watermelon sugar” and “high” in the chorus and the way it snaps in and out of that spacing is brilliant. The drive of rhythmic arpeggios on “Golden” and synth grooves of “Adore You” have a good feel. The album is typical of hit-oriented pop in its derivation of classic successful recipes and moods. The guitar intro on “Cherry” is beautiful. The mood of the stringed instrument picking on “To Be So Lonely” provides a really interestingly weighted saunter. Fine Line is good, possibly even great, but it is far from groundbreaking or incredible. It’s a pop record that is really good at being a pop record.
The guitar solo on “She” seems wildly out of place—it’s almost like Styles promised a guitar player they could really wank on one of his tracks and that was the only place with some space to put it. The song is about a woman in his daydreams; he doesn’t know who she is or why she is there, but he daydreams about her anyways and he really has no idea who she is or why he daydreams about her and then there’s an epic guitar solo for no goddamn reason. The distorted Weezer-esque guitar solo might feel more appropriate if it was paired with some of the more complicated feelings Styles has elsewhere on the record. But no. Styles has, according to both the music and lyrics, a lackluster daydream about a girl and he doesn’t know why; and in comes Shreddy McShredderson and the Tormented Guitar. Not close to something about how he’s a drunk and he misses someone that may never need him again. Maybe guitar solos are supposed to indicate sexiness, but this extended guitar romp doesn’t exist on “Watermelon Sugar.”
Styles loves to take pieces and feels from other musicians and attempt to make them his own. This is nothing new: Harry Styles’s “Carolina” is definitely rooted in Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You,” and if “Sweet Creature” isn’t derivative of The Beatles’s “Blackbird” then I don’t know what else you could call it. I don’t know how successful he really is at owning his appropriations.
Styles has a long career ahead of him and me not caring or being awestruck by this record does little to stop it—nor should it. It’d just be nice if Styles learned to be himself, but it takes a lot to separate a person from the highly produced and highly expectant world of superstar boy bands. There are long, vast lists of intimidating pop legends that Harry Styles needs to contend with and differentiate himself from in order to figure out who he really wants to be if he ever wants to be among them.
To appropriate one of Styles’s lyrics, “I can’t unpack the baggage” this album left on my Spotify account.
Illustration by Josh Gates