Those who began the 2010s harbouring an embarrassing schoolgirl crush on Harry Styles are about to begin the 2020s the very same way. His sophomore effort, Fine Line, is breezy but assertive. The album is soaked in soul and sunshine, yet, for something rather risky in sound, Fine Line still seems to play it safe.
The first four songs are one hit after another, all transforming Styles’ mystical ‘70s folk rock influence into the potential for commercial smashes.
Lyrically, the album bounces between the ecstasy of highs and the loneliness of lows in simple and generic terms; Styles seldom gets flowery or poetic and the content has been heard plenty before. It’s style over substance, but that makes his work all the more relatable. “It’d be so sweet if things just stayed the same,” he sings on standout single “Lights Up”, “all the lights couldn’t put out the dark runnin’ through my heart.” As he mulls through questions of self-reflection and attempts to come to terms with them on the lucid track, so does the listener.
“Golden”, for instance, is the perfect album opener: catchy, upbeat and unforgettable. It sets the tone for the next handful of songs, all of which follow suit. “Watermelon Sugar” is next up. It’s refreshing funk repackaged in the pop-rock characteristic of Styles, with coy, playful lyrics layered over an electrifying guitar riff. Halfway through, we fall into “She”, laid-back but sensual and fully engrossing, although it errs a bit too close to the classic rock style that Styles clearly adores.
The last couple of songs are where what could’ve been an amazing album becomes just a good one. Fine Line should have ended on an explosive, high note, but Styles’ stunner simply falters off into something that’s just okay.
The sweet, summery and psychedelic “Canyon Moon” is an exception from this. It’s the musical equivalent to a day at the beach, radiating warmth and capturing the feeling of intimacy. Complete with unique sounds like bongo drums and harmonicas on top of a danceable, jam-session acoustic guitar, it stands out from the rest of the album as well as the sounds that currently dominate popular music.
“Treat People With Kindness” is a big question mark of a song. Styles admitted to experimenting with psychedelic drugs while working on this album and it shows. “Treat People With Kindness” is a song that the Muppets would sing in a movie where they join a cult. It sounds like the least memorable track in a children’s musical. Regardless, it’s an ambitious song and Styles can’t be faulted for having some fun with his music-making, but it’s not an easy listen. At the very least, this seems like a song that would be a blast when performed live, but it’s hard to imagine wanting to listen to it enough to thoroughly enjoy that experience.
“Fine Line”, both the title and ending track, is not a terrible song, but it’s boring and unmemorable, especially at six minutes long. The track aspires to something great with the use of a variety of instruments to build into an album-defining crescendo, but it quite simply doesn’t hold up next to the unwavering strength of songs like “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar”.
Other songs weaved throughout, like “To Be So Lonely”, could be growers or cast aside depending on the listener, but on a first listen are not nearly as interesting as others.
Styles’ 70s rock-inspired musical style is completely fresh for the modern mainstream pop landscape. That being said, there is no distinctly Harry Styles stamp on the album for those who are familiar with his influences, such as Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. This is at no detriment to his music as none of it is a rehash of old sounds, but he has yet to master the sound he’s absorbed to mold it into something unique. His attempt comes loaded with impeccable production and vocals, but while it’s all fantastic, it’s ultimately just not as special as it could be. Styles stays too within the confines of his influences, hoping to be them instead of flipping them into something that’s his own. He ultimately plays it safer than he could; it’s too familiar on both spectrums and more polished for radio than Styles seems to want to be.
Sonically, Fine Line is an upgrade from his self-titled debut. Styles has shown a wealth of growth as an artist, but Fine Line still feels impersonal in comparison to his prior work. This is an album about self-discovery, but musically, Styles still has a way to go.
As Styles is currently concerned with experimentation and fine-tuning his sound, I do not think we will be seeing his full potential for a couple more years — but, this is only the beginning and it’s a promising one. If he continues to build upon what he’s created thus far, I firmly believe Styles could go down as one of the best musicians of our time. Plenty of songs on Fine Line are proof of that.