Review: Harry Styles gets naked, emotionally and physically, on Fine Line
You heard it here first.
Harry Styles’s eponymous 2017 debut album will always be framed as an emancipation. After years of pleasant, mass-pleasing pop music as One Direction’s de facto frontman, Harry pulled himself back out of the spotlight and plotted his next steps carefully. He and his former bandmates, shaped by the marionette system of chart stardom, started chasing their own imagined authenticity.
Harry’s in particular felt like had the most cohesive switch-up from one chapter to the next. His self-examining debut felt like it was written in relative solitude. It was sexy, sad rock-pop that reeked of sweaty, unwashed bed sheets and the remnants of a dying relationship, flecked with nods to Mick Jagger and Elliott Smith. Unsurprisingly, it hit number one in the UK and US.
But if 2017 Harry Styles was shaped by the bleak romanticism of places like London and New York City, where seasons actually exist and our mood ebbs and flows accordingly, the record that follows it, Fine Line (released 13 December) is definitively Californian. It’s crisper; built from a wider world view, as if two years spent embracing rock stardom has helped him loosen up, undo his cuffs and feel things a little more.
It’s not all blazing sunshine though. The album feels, at its core, like an ode to heartbreak. But the moodier moments it possesses carry the apocalyptic spirit of a city that shapes everyone who lands in it. Artists leave California changed: either they fulfil their promised creative prophecy or find themselves a little more hollow, swallowed up by its size.
But LA is also a playground, and on Fine Line Harry uses it as inspiration for his soundscape, plucking from the stories, sounds and characteristics of the musicians who found success there in the mid-to-late 20th century. It’s unorthodox, but ultimately impressive: a boy from Cheshire melting seamlessly into sunny Americana.
Every facet of the record feels touched by those influences, but never in a way that feels too on-the-nose. There’s no Springsteen-esque wide open plains or Harley Davidsons here. Instead, the album feels like it was pieced together somewhere between the nocturnal pool parties and the bleary mid-morning magic mushroom trips of a 1970s American Free Love commune. Talking of which, you're going to obsess over the photograph of Harry on the inside of the vinyl sleeve in which he has approximately zero clothes on.
There are tinges of beach rock beneath the cinematic production of scene-setter “Golden”, which wipes clean the boozy introspectiveness of the last record, replacing it with something bigger and more glorious. The single “Watermelon Sugar” could be read as a fructose-filled ode to cunnilingus or time spent with a former lover. Bass guitars, harmonies and horn sections build, before the poppiness of its follow-up “Adore You” -- on which Harry insists he’ll “walk through fire for you” -- arrives.
The bitter melancholy of lost love shapes the record’s midsection. On “Cherry”, Harry begs a former girlfriend: “Don’t call him baby / Don’t you call him what you used to call me”, lamenting that he misses her “accent and [her] friends”. These expressions of longing are never as whisper quiet as he was on the last record -- everything backdropped with wide-walled production courtesy of Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson -- but it still gets to the heart of Harry's self-imposed framing as a boy who bruises easily, even if he’s prone to winking and warbling his way through the pain.
Lyrically, “Cherry” feels like the sorest song on Fine Line, but as a whole package “Falling” feels reminiscent of a strong 1D ballad, only distinctly more mature. “No one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands,” he reveals on the first verse, before questioning “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” But for every whole-souled song about someone he’s lost, there’s an optimistic tonic to follow it. The sweet two-handed run of “Sunflower, Vol 6” and “Canyon Moon” are pure wonky, free love psychedelic pop -- all jangling and jovial and easy to fall for. The former, produced by Adele collaborator Greg Kurstin, is dedicated to those first blooming feelings of infatuation: “Tired eyes are the death of me, mouth full of toothpaste / Before I got to know you, I’ve got your face hung up high in the gallery.” Meanwhile, there’s something sweet about the “California Dreamin’” harmonies on the very catchy “Treat People With Kindness”, which expands on Harry’s widely told mantra in musical form.
The record signs off with its title track, and it feels like clouds breaking. There are barely 20 lines of lyrics on “Fine Line”, and yet it stretches out over six minutes. It starts sparingly, but builds and builds to reach a busy crescendo evocative of the most rousing songs Bon Iver made before his pivot to electronica; like an echoing, more sanguine “Perth”.
“Fine Line” feels like another confident exercise in Harry Styles’ ongoing genre cross-over. It’s a maturation from his debut that feels free from the weight of expectation. It bruises, broods and unshackles itself in all the right places, successfully taking us to the place most of it came to be: by that kinetic Californian coastline, coloured by the cool psychedelia its creator has fallen hopelessly in love with.
You'll have to take our word for it until the release of Fine Line, next Friday 13 December