Highly anticipated by both lifetime One Direction fans and Harry Styles newcomers, Fine Line dropped on Dec. 13, 2019 at midnight and soon after reached #1 on the U.S. iTunes sales chart. Styles’ debut self-titled album displayed his talent for telling stories, but Fine Line shows us his soul and some of his deepest thoughts, questions, and insecurities.
Since the end of One Direction, Styles has taken more artistic risks and explored different avenues of expressing himself. He has developed a specific aesthetic in the way he dresses, blurring gender lines and making him admirable in a different way from his 16-year-old self did as a member of One Direction.
In a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Styles appeared as both a host and musical guest and was praised for his musical and comedic talent. The promotional photoshoot for the episode, featuring Styles in a pink ballet tutu, has drawn the attention of many fans and has given way to both comments about Styles’ rejection of masculinity and questions about his sexuality.
Styles has been answering questions about the latter since the days of One Direction and the invasive assumptions about bandmate Louis Tomlinson. While he has never felt the need to use a label to define his sexuality, his flamboyant style and boundary-pushing departure from traditional masculinity is a refreshing and necessary component of his image.
When asked in aninterview with The Guardian about his perceived LGBTQ+ hint-dropping in his album and style, he responded, “Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No...I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool.”
To sum up his thoughts on the conjecture about his sexuality, Styles says, “Who cares?” It certainly is a lot to expect Styles to forego his privacy and be the hero of the LGBTQ+ community simply because he doesn’t appear straight, but it is important to recognize that many people do struggle with this part of their identity and cannot be as neutral and calm about it as Styles. At the same time, treating sexuality as such a fluid and natural part of identity that is not necessary to strictly define is a perspective that is gaining momentum, and perhaps Styles is a role model for this kind of thinking.
The development of his style, his appearance on SNL, and the release of new singles all heightened the anticipation for his sophomore album.
The 12-track album opens with “Golden,” which lives up to its title. Styles has related the song to the feeling of driving in California. The shimmering cymbals and background vocals convey the anticipation of a relationship, although Styles admits that it can be scary to dive in so quickly. While the song can get repetitive, it does its job of bringing the listener into the artist’s world and setting the tone for the rest of the album.
The next three tracks, “Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You,” and “Lights Up” were the three singles released before the album’s release. They have similar, exciting moods and are what one might expect from a pop musician such as Styles. But the three singles go beyond that, and “Adore You” in particular stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. The fantastical music video, narrated by Spanish musician Rosalía, explores loneliness, happiness, and friendship.
“Cherry” is an acoustic track that sounds like a hazy, glowing memory of a past relationship that Styles still wants to hold onto. The last thirty seconds feature a dreamy voicemail from the woman of his affection, his ex-girlfriend Camille Rowe. It has an ethereal quality and light guitar melodies that contrast with melancholy lyrics, making it my personal favorite of the album.
In the single “Lights Up” earlier on the album, Styles raises a question to the listener (or himself): “Do you know who you are?” Later, in the heartbreaking, piano-based track “Falling,” Styles reflects further: “What am I now?/What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” This theme of uncertainty and doubt demonstrates a vulnerability that many fans—who may have idolized Styles at the peak of One Direction’s success—can relate to as they enter the tumultuous period of early adulthood, making the album personal.
“To Be So Lonely” is Styles’ attempt to reconcile being apart from a relationship he knows isn’t good for him. The track is quiet but upbeat and is an appropriate transition from the heaviness of “Falling.”
“She” leans toward a rock sound more than any other track on the album, with an electric guitar solo making up about a third of the song. Styles muses about a woman who doesn’t exist, who “lives in daydreams” with him, and is his ideal lover. This track departs from the glamorous pop influences of the rest of the album, and its length and tone allow the listener to truly be pulled into this dream world that Styles sings about.
“Sunflower, Vol. 6” is a track that happily reminisces about a past relationship rather than reflecting on it with regret. It is unmistakably pop, but the stacked vocals signal an 80s influence that blends with the more modern beat of the rest of the song.
The next two, “Canyon Moon” and “Treat People With Kindness,” are my two least favorite tracks on the album. While I appreciate the variety “Canyon Moon” brings to the record, it detracts from the cohesiveness, and it seems incongruous to go from the previous tracks that can absorb all of my attention to songs as campy as these two.
“Treat People With Kindness” is pleasant-sounding enough and has a positive message, but it seems that Styles leaned too much into the Queen influence of the song and didn’t put enough of his own spin on it. The result was jarring falsettos and an upbeat track that I didn’t connect with like the others. Overall, it doesn’t live up to the artistry of the rest of the album.
In the final track, “Fine Line,” Styles declares amidst a triumphant trumpet line that “we’ll be alright” although life and relationships become complicated. The instrumentation makes the final track a hopeful one, and although Styles embodies a more serious mindset than in “Golden,” the first and last tracks of the album have us looking to the uncertain future, almost as if Styles has come out on the other side of this record a different person.
Fine Line is a versatile but mostly cohesive collection of songs that displays much more of Harry Styles’ mind than we have ever seen before. This album begins and ends on a hopeful tone and reminds us that it is okay to doubt ourselves and not have everything figured out, even for one of the biggest pop stars of our time.
Overall rating: 8/10
Favorite tracks: "Cherry," "Adore You," "She"