When the world was first introduced to Styles, he was a teen pop sensation from a British boy band singing nonsensically about what makes you beautiful. His debut in One Direction placed him on the fast track to sensationalized fame. My own middle school experience was defined in part by his early career; each member of our friend group picked a member of the band to claim as “theirs,” and I called dibs on Harry Styles early on.
And yet, with the world’s eyes firmly planted on his every move, Styles has always kept his cards relatively close to his chest. In 2017, he released his debut self titled album, giving us our first glimpse into the eye of his mind. He established himself through a flare for the type of rock and roll originally coined by Mick Jagger. The lyricism of his first album is vulnerable and sensitive, but at the end of the day, a bit repetitive (this one’s about a girl, and so is this one, and that one).
Flash forward to 2019. Musically, Fine Line tops his previous projects in every way. There’s a greater complexity and variation from song to song, jumping between genres in a way that creates a unique range without becoming too jarring. Tracks like Adore You have a pop vibe about them, whereas Sunflower, Vol. 6 mirrors the whimsicality of alternative indie bands like Vampire Weekend, and Treat People With Kindness sprinkles in twinges of gospel rock.
In its entirety, the album seems to rise and fall like a well balanced story. Golden kicks us off in what feels like summertime. We are optimistic, golden in the light of the one we love. This feeling of blind optimism carries us all the way through Lights Up, an anthem of confidence in ourselves and our place in the world. But suddenly the seasons change and a relationship we were once so confident in slips away with Cherry. To Be So Lonely feels like a winter chill; “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch that can’t admit when he’s sorry.”
The songs to follow steadily increase in optimism, and by the time Treat People With Kindness comes around we have a newfound faith in humanity. Finally, spring seems to burst with Fine Line; its cautious build reaches its peak with the firm reassurance that “we’ll be alright.”
If Harry Styles gave us vulnerability, Fine Line affirms in every way a comfort with emotional expression and a blurred understanding of gender norms, conveying a brand of self love that effectively questions toxic masculinity. Even so, some of the album’s songs don’t venture out into the creative and emotional depth I want so badly for Styles. Watermelon Sugar feels too safe, nothing more than a catchy pop tune to guarantee at least one radio hit. He takes his own heartbreak too literally, and tracks like Falling are just not that lyrically interesting; lines like “I’m well aware I write too many songs about you,” are paper thin.
Styles has often cited musical trailblazers like David Bowie and Stevie Nicks as inspirations, hoping to one day match their unique genius. The lyricism of certain tracks suggest a potential to one day achieve this goal. She, for example, is a story within a song. The chorus line “she lives in daydreams with me” is rumored to reflect Styles’ inner struggle with his feminine side. This anthem to femininity paralleled against a gritty guitar riff that builds into an epic solo is the type of interesting contrast that puts Styles on a path towards legendary.
Similarly, the song Fine Line interprets his love life in a far more lyrically interesting way. The mere concept of a relationship teetering on a fine line adds a complexity other tracks lack. The duality of lines like “You sunshine, you temptress” makes listeners consider the different sides to their own relationships. This emotional ballad accompanied by soaring trumpets is almost dreamlike, offering a sort of comfort that makes you want to cry. If Styles continues to push in this direction, writing music that thinks outside the box, he might just step into the light come album three.
Art by Staff Artist Guinevere Fullerton.