Mixing and matching inspirations from rock legends like David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Queen, Harry Styles hones a unique and varied sound in his most recent album, “Fine Line,” released in December 2019. Although Pitchfork searingly criticized Styles for posturing as the next David Bowie, I believe he is simply discovering what it means to be a rock ‘n’ roll-inspired pop singer in the 21st century. While Styles has long been known as the it-boy and fan favorite, he emerges as the most ambitious member of his former band, One Direction. Ex-bandmates Niall Horan and Zayn Malik have come out with popular singles in the last several years, but Styles has demonstrated stamina and talent since the group disbanded—first in his self-titled album released in 2017 and now with “Fine Line.” While condemned for coming off as imitative rather than original, I am convinced he has woven a personal style and charm into his most recent project. You have to commend him for resisting trend-chasing and remaining true to his personal muses and motivations.
Here’s the rundown: The sound is good, the songwriting is mediocre and the vocals are decent. Styles has mastered spinning sadness into melody but has yet to conquer the lyrical world. Most of the songs are, if not perfect bullseyes, at least on target—except for “Treat People With Kindness,” which just misses the mark completely. The song relies on a campy, choir-filled background. The stale lyrics in the chorus do little to redeem it: “Maybe, we can/Find a place to feel good/And we can treat people with kindness/Find a place to feel good.”
The result of Styles experimenting with influences from classic rock and indie is an extremely listenable album without too much depth. It’s whimsical, funky and a little all over the place. Some tracks are upbeat and colorful while others are soft and sensitive. “Fine Line,” the title track, is disappointing in its lyrical repetition but remains sweet and soulful. Simple guitar strums accompanied by echoing vocals set a gloomy tone that support the longing and emotion in Styles’s voice. It feels like Styles has not yet reached his maximum potential; he can certainly produce pleasant music but it’s not quite exceptional. He makes confessions, observations and inquiries, but none are original or blistering enough to support the album emotionally.
The artist commented that the album is all about “being sad and having sex” (Rolling Stone, “The Eternal Sunshine of Harry Styles,” 08.26.2019). However, the album is more reflective of ambivalence than it is of heartbreak or lust. Lines like, “I still miss your accent and your friends,” and clips of French dialogue at the end of “Cherry” imply that much of the romantic inspiration for this album stems from his previous relationship with French model Camille Rowe. His reticent acceptance of their break up is reflected in his lyrics; they connote soul-searching and gentle expressions of yearning more than tales of suffering.
The singles “Lights Up,” “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar” are all poppy and tuneful; Styles saves his more soulful tracks for the rest of the album. “Falling” is a beautiful, aching ballad with simple but powerful lines that carry the chorus: “What if I’m down? What if I’m out? What if I’m someone you won’t talk about?” Styles belts these lines with passion and burning self-doubt. These questions are accompanied by acute melancholy sentiments like, “The coffee’s out/At the Beachwood cafe/And it kills me cause I know we’ve run out of things we can say.” This is one of the few tracks that offers a real taste of Styles’s actual vocal range and achieves a rawness the rest of the album is reaching for.
While his musical style is reminiscent of classic rock legends like David Bowie and Mick Jagger, particularly in the sliding guitar and swirling vocals featured on many tracks, Styles evokes other inspirations in “Fine Line.” The background vocals of the opener, “Golden,” call to mind the mellow soft-rock of Crosby, Stills & Nash, while “Canyon Moon” and “Sunflower Vol. 6,” lighthearted and nostalgic, could be straight off Vampire Weekend’s most recent album. Styles also cites The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd as impactful influences.
While I never had a One Direction phase during my preteen years (maybe it was my 13-year-old self attempting rebellion), Harry Styles has definitely gained a fan, albeit an older one, after his second studio album. He successfully departed from his past of cheesy pop with this record, although his fan base hasn’t changed much. They’re actually very much the same, just a few years older than they were when One Direction ruled the pop world. And then, of course, there’s me.
The charisma and velvety vocals that sent preteens reeling in 2014 are now inspiring 19-year-olds to listen avidly. As Styles develops his lyrical chops, I’m ready for the next album to knock me off my feet.