It’s fair to say at this point that Harry Styles is the success story of One Direction. Though Liam Payne’s attempt at trap-influenced R&B may have bested him in terms of raw play count, it is Styles who has achieved critical support, a legion of fans who behave with a level of fervour similar to that of Directioners and the closest thing to a unique solo sound of all the band members.
Influenced primarily by classic British rock – Bowie, the Beatles, T-Rex and of course his dead ringer Mick Jagger – Styles’ roadmap is inherently more flamboyant than that of other contemporary male pop singers in the UK. On one side, there are the guitar-strumming everymen – Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran – and on the other are traditionally mainstream performers like Payne and, in the US, Shawn Mendes. Styles' throwback aesthetic has always made Styles a much more interesting proposition.
His 2017 eponymous solo debut saw him arrive at something like his own niche – a place that indulged his new rockstar swagger as well as the gentler instincts he’d developed in 1D. On paper, his second album Fine Line should have been a continuation of this, with a little room for experimentation, following suggestions that it might contain references to drugs and a painful break-up.
In practice, while all of those elements are there, they are disparate, less united by the lyrics and sound. Fine Line feels more like a succession of different outfits, rather than a nailed-down personal style.
You wouldn’t know that from the first track, however. “Golden” is far and away the album’s highlight, a winding, “The Chain”–influenced banger (Styles has played the legendary Fleetwood Mac song live on a number of his tours.) I’ll admit to having a preference for Styles’ classic rock hat, simply because he offers something genuinely entertaining when he’s wearing it, and that’s especially true here. The song spirals from a jam band conclusion into the next track: “Watermelon Sugar”. The second single of the album, it sounded slightly limp when Styles debuted it on Saturday Night Live. Despite giving off a 'mellow' family barbecue vibe in performance, it's lively and warm on record, with brassy trumpet blasts, a locked-in guitar riff and some typically barefaced oral sex references.
Taken together, "Golden" and "Watermelon Sugar" feel like a step forward for the solidification of Styles’ musical identity. Sadly, the same can't be said for “Adore You,” Fine Line's and final pre-release single. A fairly flat, disco-lite lust song with repetitive lyrics, it's bald pop influences mean it loses a lot of what is special about Styles. If there wasn’t a showy guitar solo at the end, it’d be hard to tell this track apart from any other identikit chart song. The same is true of low point “Falling,” a big piano ballad written for the arenas, where Styles, again, feels interchangeable with Mendes or any number of male singers who are simply less cool
than him. There’s nothing wrong with leaning into mainstream, teen idol tendencies, but it seems pointless when the songs where he does so are basically devoid of distinction from anyone else.
Styles as ‘teen idol’ is just one of the personas he gives us on Fine Line. There’s also Styles as 'drugged-out rockstar' on album launch single “Lights Up” and the airily-produced “She” – which is good fun, and returns to a riff-heavy place that feels more uniquely his own, even if the songs are a little too cloudy to make an impact. Elsewhere, there’s the heartbroken “arrogant son of a bitch,” as he describes himself on “To Be So Lonely.”
It's the heartbreak songs, clearly inspired by Styles' break-up with model Camille Rowe, that are among the best on the album – in particular “Cherry,” “Canyon Moon,” and “Sunflower, Vol 6.” Styles gets particular about his feelings, picking out small, personal images (“She plays songs I’ve never heard,” on “Canyon Moon”; “Mouth full of toothpaste / Before I got to know you” on “Sunflower, Vol 6”) in a manner not dissimilar to Taylor Swift, another songwriter who straddles guitar music (albeit a different kind) and pop. This detail-orientated side of Styles is a welcome one – when he talks about real experiences, it’s like he’s a different artist. No longer is he gesturing towards the moods his influences create, but instead breathing real, contemporary life into them. For a performer who, for the most part, keeps himself, his views, and his feelings hidden, the specificity certainly suits him well.
Which is why Fine Line’s big crowd-pleaser “Treat People With Kindness” (this title a message that Styles has emblazoned on his official merch for years) falls short. It’s a whooping, 70s party of a track which says nothing at all – all references, no trousers – on an album where Styles literally proves he can do better. Indeed, on “Lights Up,” which was the first single of his Fine Line campaign, Harry Styles asks a simple question: “Do you know who you are?” After listening to the record, it seems this might be a question he has asked himself, and ultimately knows the answer to – he just needs the conviction to express it more consistently.