Harry Styles – Fine Line
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Adore You, She, Sunflower Vol. 6
I have a fascination with contemporary musicians who build a lot of their career around tributes and throwbacks, with one of the most popular examples right now being former boy-bander Harry Styles of One Direction fame. At this point in his career, it’s easy to forget that he started out with them, considering how much his star has risen due to his popular solo albums inspired 1970s classic rock. In fact, I didn’t even listen to any One Direction in preparing for this review.
His debut self-titled wasn’t great. While it had its moments and a surprising level of ambition, it tended to lack a strong voice and could lean too heavily on its classic rock influences as opposed to making songs that transcended them. Harry’s second album, 2019’s Fine Line, unfortunately had a lot of the same issues.
I should point out that Fine Line has a few genuinely good songs. I really dug “Adore You,” which is lively, funky, and features charismatic vocals. “Sunflower Vol. 6″ was also a lot of fun, mixing worldbeat influences that come together in a bright and entertaining way. “She” is also a great track, featuring great psychedelic guitarwork that pays tribute to 70s progressive rock.
The last song I enjoyed was “Canyon Moon,” which feels like a Paul Simon-inspired folk pop tune, featuring whistling and guitar strumming like Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. Admittedly, the lyrics and overall sound of the track start to get a bit too cloying and oversweet by the end. A larger issue within the songs I like is that they aren’t like each other so it’s hard to say why they’re above the other tracks.
The debut single, “Lights Up,” comes close to being a worthwhile song with good performances and production. Yet the song also feels curiously unfinished, with the song lacking proper structure and seeming to end before it really gets anywhere. At the very least, it has less flaws than a lot of the other songs here. There are more folk-inspired songs like “Cherry” and “To Be So Lonely,” but they tend to feel too cheesy or underdeveloped to warrant the emotions Harry is attempting to channel in the lyrics.
The album also starts off on a bad note: “Golden,” the opener, seems to be at odds with itself in terms of its composition. The lyrics and performance from Harry feel muted and sleepy, yet the drums and group vocals feel energetic and clash with it. I also disliked the biggest hit of the album, “Watermelon Sugar,” which feels too repetitive and stilted to work as a fun summery dance track. (Though it has over a billion Spotify streams so this could just be me.)
My least favorite song here is by far “Treat People with Kindness,” which is just naïve and lacking in self-awareness. The lyrics and gospel-ish group vocals are so aggressively sunshiney and feel-good that I just find the track insufferable, especially as Harry’s corny adlibs come into play towards the end.
The last song on the album is the title track, which might be the biggest waste of potential here. It’s attempting to be a big, epic emotional closer to the album that’s six minutes long. I feel as if it doesn’t succeed because the more passionate folk parts feel half-baked and slightly monotonous, then it builds up to a big brass and symphony finish that feels unearned and forced. I wish the song was better than it was due to its good vocals and atmospheric production.
I wasn’t impressed with Fine Line as an album despite some bright spots and promising ideas, and part of the reason it’s more disappointing is because Harry Styles is capable of a good album someday. But if he’s going to move forward, he needs to improve as a lyricist as well as consider the consistency of his work. He has a new album coming out sometime this year and I hope he’s shown signs of improvement, even if I’ll still be approaching with caution.