Fine Line

Harry Styles

Columbia, 2019

http://hstyles.co.uk

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/11/2020

On his 2017 self-titled debut album, Harry Styles largely played it safe – a little too safe for my liking, but he did at least show that he was one hell of a singer and was willing to embrace a more rounded musical soundscape than his One Direction days allowed for. For his second studio album, Styles gathered together pretty much the same team to co-write and produce the record and got to work in latter half of 2019, coming together with an absolute cavalcade of session players across no less than ten recording studios.

Styles gave several interviews leading up to the release of the album where he talked about his liberal use of psychedelic drugs, his sexuality, a former relationship, and his love of partying – all of which would shape the musical expressions and lyrical content of the album. I felt at the time that all of this was a little too contrived, as that first record (although by no means a dud) was so carefully planned and executed that Styles was almost apologising for not baring his soul on that one.

In those interviews, Styles also talked about his love of ‘70s music and named Bowie and Joni Mitchell as two of his current loves. These themes were shamelessly explored on his debut and are again prominent here, albeit in slightly shinier packaging. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Fine Line is another solid album from Styles; however, as with that debut, he frustratingly falls short of reaching his potential as he seems to get off on paying homage to his idols without trying to break some new ground for himself.

The opener “Golden” is a glittery pop track that deals with the warm glow of a new relationship and is awash with clichés: “I'm out of my head and I know that you're scared / Because hearts get broken.” Better is “Watermelon Sugar,” which is a carefree pop song rejoicing in a past summer romance. “Adore You” is more of the same, although this time it’s a new lover he’s hooked on; he moves on quickly, it seems. Musically, it is clear from just a few tracks that this time around, the team has dropped the “live band” base sound that the first record was built around and instead has loaded up on the programmers and processors.

This is a shame because as we move through the record, tracks like “Lights Up” and “Treat People With Kindness” bleed into each other instead of leaving a lasting impression of their own. Things pick up when Styles again ventures into his trusted bag of influences for “Sunflower Vol. 6,” which is a slick pop track that is peppered with bits and pieces of the psychedelic era thanks to Greg Kurstin, who brought along a clavichord and electric sitar to that session.

Then there’s “She,” which gets the closest to the soft rock sounds explored on the debut album. This one gets a six-plus minute workout with a killer extended guitar solo to play out the track; think Fleetwood Mac’s “I’m So Afraid” without the Buckingham angst. Some of the stronger tracks on this record are the ballads. On “Falling,” Styles writes about his breakup with model Camille Rowe (“You said you care, and you missed me too / And I'm well aware I write too many songs about you”) and on the title track, we get a gorgeous introspective ballad awash with some beautiful layered harmony vocals.

Styles famously stated this album was all about “having sex and feeling sad,” and while it may have been a cathartic experience for him in dealing with the Rowe breakup, it doesn’t translate all that well for the listener. Lyrically again, it just isn’t that deep and the same themes are explored over and over. Meanwhile, the more streamlined production has robbed some of these tracks of reaching their full potential. It somehow feels longer than its forty-seven minutes, too, which is never a good sign.

Rating: B-

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