Online editor Stephen Ong reviews Harry Styles’ latest album
Much has been made of the context of Harry Styles’ sophomore record, Fine Line; his Rolling Stone interview advertised the then-unannounced album as one about ‘having sex and feeling sad’ and mentioned the use of magic mushrooms in writing the album. Following that, the announcement of the album hinted at an album about queerness, while the more recent Zane Lowe interview further touched on the subject matter of the songs, alluding to a feature of an ex-girlfriend (allegedly, Camille Rowe’s voicemail features in ‘Cherry’). Despite this, the context is irrelevant to the experience of Fine Line, as the lyricism of the album is decidedly impersonal.
The vagueness of Styles’ lyrics has been a constant theme throughout his career (with the exception of a couple of the ballads off his debut solo record), and thus, Fine Line is best enjoyed as a Styles-lishly quirky collection of indie pop and psychedelic folk songs, where he appears to be crafting a more unique sound.
the lyricism of the album is decidedly impersonal
Fine Line can be divided equally into three sections: the first third of the album contains the three already released singles and ‘Golden’, a song that is sonically similar to the singles (upbeat and poppy), the middle third of the album contains the ballads, and the last third of the album returns to the upbeat sound of the first third, but is more experimental, sounding much like contemporary indie rock bands, and is the most interesting material Styles has put out yet.
For an album released in winter, it is surprising that many of the songs are manifestations of summer. Styles compares his lover to the sun in both the opening (‘You wait for me in the sky / Brown my skin just right / You’re golden’) and closing (‘You sunshine’) tracks, to a sunflower in the aptly titled ‘Sunflower, Vol. 6’, and the singles ‘Watermelon Sugar’ and ‘Adore You’ are set during the summer. Yet in the context of the album, the songs play out more as a nostalgia for a summer romance, for Fine Line isn’t a happy album.
Fine Line is best enjoyed as a Styles-lishly quirky collection of indie pop and psychedelic folk songs
The chorus of ‘Golden’ (‘You’re so golden / I don’t want to be alone / You’re so golden / I’m out of my head, and I know that you’re scared / ‘Cause hearts get broken’) betrays the summery sound of the song with its paranoid lyrics, and the middle third of the album has some of Styles’ darkest moments. ‘Cherry’ is an acoustic song about jealousy, featuring the biting line, ‘Does he take you walking round his parents’ gallery?’ and a haunting, distorted French voicemail. The song ‘To Be So Lonely’ is similarly themed, but the tinge of heartbreak in ‘Cherry’ is replaced by a boldness, with Styles singing ‘I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch / Who can’t admit when he’s sorry’. Unfortunately, the song’s instrumental is too mellow to carry the audaciousness of the song.
The final song of the middle third, ‘She’, is a moody psychedelic rock song that could be the menacing older sibling of The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’. The opening line (‘Nine in the morning, a man drops his kids off at school’), story of a person leaving, and echoing vocals of the chorus nod to The Beatles’ song, but it’s the two minute guitar solo that steals the show.
the songs play out more as a nostalgia for a summer romance
The last third of the album manages to be the most rewarding part of Fine Line, where the songs evoke a present happiness that is lacking from the rest of the album. The song ‘Sunflower, Vol. 6’ is trademark Vampire Weekend that would not be out of place on their latest album, with its unique instrumentation, vocal manipulation, and croons, and even its title. Somehow, Styles fits the song naturally, gleefully singing, ‘I couldn’t want you any more / Kiss in the kitchen like it’s a dance floor’.
‘Canyon Moon’ is a similarly happy folk song, complete with whistling, and a singalong chorus of ‘I’m going home’, whereas ‘Treat People With Kindness’ is impressive for its experimentation. Its combination of a gospel choir, funk instrumentation, heavily autotuned vocals, Styles screaming, and lyrics about being kind will be divisive among listeners, but it’s just as catchy, if not more so, than the singles. It’s a triumphant moment before the closer ‘Fine Line’, which recalls Bon Iver’s ‘Perth’ with its superbly building instrumental. Starting out as an acoustic folk song, ‘Fine Line’ builds and echoes its way into pounding drums and horns, and it’s here where Styles truly allows his lyricism to take the backseat and let the atmosphere of the song overwhelm the listener.
it’s left to the gorgeous aesthetic of the instrumentation and pleasant melodies
Fine Line is proof that Harry Styles is only going to continue to grow as an artist; his ear for a pop song, combined with his eclectic influences, means that he continues to inhabit the fine line between pop and indie music. Despite this, the lyrics of Fine Line are often too distanced and general, and it’s left to the gorgeous aesthetic of the instrumentation and pleasant melodies to make up for it.