Harry Styles has always been the most interesting of the One Direction alumni. Niall opted for adult contemporary acoustic pop/rock, and the sound works well for him. Zayn delved straight into alternative R&B, a natural fit for his soulful voice and considerable range. Louis can’t sing. Liam tried, and failed miserably, at recreating the suave hip-hop/pop sound that dominated the early part of the decade and late ’00s. And then, there was Harry. Harry’s eponymous debut album, one of the best of the decade, was a smooth blend of stadium rock influences with hints of folk and traditional pop melodies and song structures. He impressed with vocal range, lyricism, and attention to detail. On Fine Line, Harry expands his scope to include more ambitious production choices and more vulnerable songwriting.
The album begins with “Golden,” a surf rock-influenced ode to endless euphoric youth. It’s almost the antithesis of his last album opener. Where “Meet Me in the Hallway” was filled with pain and longing, “Golden” is bursting with joy in every note. “Golden” smoothly transitions into a trifecta of pre-album singles: “Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You,” and “Lights Up.” “Sugar” is a brassy track dedicated to Harry’s loves of summers past. His use of vocal layering intensifies the ecstatic feeling of the track. Lyrically, the song is quite simple which allows the multilayered production to shine. “Adore You” employs synths that are reminiscent of Ariana Grande‘s “Love Me Harder” or Lady Gaga‘s “Do What U Want.” It’s a nice segue into electropop while still staying true to the core rock/pop of Harry’s artistry. Finally, “Lights Up,” which I reviewed upon its debut weeks ago, is still as fresh as ever, with the chorus of “I’m not ever going back” hitting even harder in the context of Harry’s new broadened sound.
Fine Line is also fertile ground for Harry’s exploration with different subgenres of rock, all of which turn out impressive results. On “Cherry,” a folky Fleetwood Mac-esque number on which Harry gets more personal than he did on the entirety of his first album. His earnest vocal performance accentuates the vulnerability of the lyrics. The song is about one of his ex-girlfriends and he even features recordings of her voice at the beginning and at the end of the track. There’s also a massive arena rock moment in “She.” That track features mesmerizing guitar riffs and overall production that is simply luxurious in its opulence. The song builds and builds as Harry gets more specific about his ideal lover. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Harry revealed that he and his band were on shrooms during the making of this song which explains the trippy, and almost whimsical, feel of the guitars and drums. Harry also plays around with notes of ska and reggae on “Sunflower, Vol. 6” and Queen-influenced rock opera on the standout “Treat People With Kindness.”
On Harry Styles, one of Harry’s most obvious strengths were his ballads, and he takes those to new heights on Fine Line. One of Harry’s career-best tracks, “Falling,” is a heartbreaking song about losing touch with yourself and your self image. This is, by far, his most expressive and moving vocal performance, it’s an absolutely gorgeous ballad. By that same token, “To Be So Lonely,” is another excellent introspective ballad. The song shifts the focus from Harry’s own psyche to his relationship, at there is a sour bite of denial that underscores his vocal performance and lyricism on the track. In general, the tracklisting of Fine Line is impressive. The album’s production swells and settles according to different stages of grief.
Fine Line is a homerun. Anyone who listened to Harry Styles knew that Harry had studied the greats and was headed for a long and fruitful career. Fine Line is proof that Harry can get deeper and go bigger, yet still not lose himself and his sound in the midst of all that experimentation.
Key Tracks: “Adore You”; “Falling”; “Fine Line”; “Watermelon Sugar”