Harry Styles' Fine Line Is An Incredibly Exciting Next Step For The Artist
Harry Styles clearly loves music. Absolutely, resolutely adores it. Fine Line is an album dripping with references to a vast gamut of rock legends old and new and not the ones that Styles has come to be associated with by choice: while there’s still riffs off The Beatles here, you’re just as likely to find homages to Vampire Weekend, Joni Mitchell, Electric Light Orchestra and Bon Iver in the final, titular track. It’s an album that wears its references right on its sleeve, less a statement of intent than a way of showing how he’s growing. It’s an album of different ideas, often conflicting ideologies and narratives, and one that shows a man – to an outside eye, anyway – trying to find who he is. Perfect? No. Exciting? Absolutely.
After all, Fine Line is an album that toys with s*x and s*xuality, the pagan and the psychedelic, with a firm dollop of Los Angeles-tinged pop: the sun in omnipresent, tans are always mentioned and every song seems to feature a banquet of different fruit to be gorged on and compared to. It’s the sophomore album of an artist who has a great knowledge of himself, who is trying to find how that inflects on his work; you can feel him change as the album goes on, from a first act loaded with ambient and radio-friendly singles to a second half that draws from the great canon of folk rock.
The album is at its best when this varnish of sun-dappled fun fades away and what is left is eccentric Brit dandy rock.
The best song on the album, “Cherry”, is the most blatantly autobiographical, drawing on a recent break-up with Camille Rowe in its references to an ex-girlfriend now being taken round a new partner’s gallery (her new squeeze is indeed a gallerist) and finishing off with what is widely reported to be a sample of her voice. It’s the album’s rawest moment and the harmonies on this song, and the way it spreads out into the whole of itself, is truly something else. It is also probably the hardest song on the album to pin as a tribute to someone else. A sign that it is truly, absolutely what Styles can do.
Other songs seem more obviously drawn from inspiration: “Sunflower, Vol 6” feels like it could be on the deluxe edition of Vampire Weekend's Father Of The Bride. “Canyon Moon” feels like a spiritual sequel to Joni’s Ladies Of The Canyon in more than just name: there are guitar riffs that lead right into "Big Yellow Taxi" or "All I Want" from Blue. On “Treat People With Kindness”, the use of bright child-like choirs to underscore a song of sweeping compassion couldn’t be more ELO if it tried. It’s also an absolute banger, destined to be the moment Zorbs drop from stadium ceilings onto crowds of excited fans.
The way Styles plays with these references in his particular cauldron of pop and rock shows signs of something really, really interesting. Where the first couple of songs on the album – AKA the singles you’ve already heard – are summery bangers ripe for cocktail bars and winter Love Island, from “Cherry” onwards the album starts to go somewhere more gnarly, trying to find ways to bring Sufjan Stevens and The Flaming Lips into the sort of melancholic rock that would have been perfect for The OC’s soundtrack if that show was still on the air (I mean this entirely as a compliment).
There’s absolutely nothing to lament about Fine Line: the only thing that holds it back is that it feels like a step. “Kiwi walked so Watermelon Sugar could run,” Styles tweeted, in reference to how the second single from Fine Line owed much of itself to one from the eponymous first album. By the time Fine Line finishes, what you’re left craving is the next album, where Styles finally takes the music he loves and blends it with the puckish, Dionysian rocker he knows himself to be. I want nothing but complete artistic satisfaction for Harry Styles and solo artists coming out of bands almost never produce music with this much potential. Plenty of brilliant artists were still finding their modus operandi on their second album – Janet Jackson took a long time to give us Control and Solange is unrecognisable from her first album to True – and the signs are here that Styles knows exactly where he wants to end up.