When One Direction went on hiatus in 2016, it wasn’t really a question of if Harry Styles would release solo material – more, what sort of music would it be? Would he follow ex-bandmate Zayn Malik down the sensual electronic-R&B route? Would he try and shed the boyband label and push out a record of boyish indie? Or would he go down the Justin Timberlake route of a tightly written, full-blown pop album?
Well, he did none of the above. Styles’ debut single ‘Sign of the Times’ was a Bowie inspired epic standing at just under six minutes. The power ballad fused elements of ’70s rock with Britpop, and was a taster of what was to come on his self-titled debut album, which combined the aforementioned influences with elements of soft rock, psychedelia and a dash of funk. Brilliantly bizarre and endlessly endearing, it featured a handful of mega tunes, but sometimes it felt like Styles was borrowing too heavily from his musical heroes. There were glimmers of his personality and own sound, but they were partially obscured by the eclectic inspirations and attempts to distance himself from his boyband past.
His follow up ‘Fine Line’ has taken this nostalgic sound and combined it with soaring pop sensibilities. And while his influences are still evident (Hell, he even sought out the woman who made Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer in the ‘70s, and plays one on the album), there’s far more of a cohesive Styles sound on ‘Fine Line’.
This was evident in the first few singles: ‘Lights Up’, which blends soft rock with modern indie and a glimmer of soul, and the bombastic ‘Watermelon Sugar’, a ‘70s inspired bop stuffed with bolshy brass lines. The rest of ‘Fine Line’ follows suit.
Punchy opener ‘Golden’ is a big and brash indie-pop song. It’s filled with simple backing vocals, twinkling glockenspiel tinkles and a huge, warm chorus. You can hear the weight of his heroes Fleetwood Mac threaded throughout the track (and on the rest of the record), but this time around Style’s own charm doesn’t seem lost among his admiration for historic greats.
The jangling ‘Cherry’ is drenched in psychedelia with its clattering riffs and harmonica lines. ‘Sunflower, Vol. 6’ is stuffed with The Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies and production that could have come off the latest Vampire Weekend record, and ‘Canyon Moon’ combines those aforementioned Fleetwood Mac nods with sunny, ‘Screamadelica’-indebted instrumentation.
Lyrically, it’s brazenly honest. The album, Styles has said, is “all about having sex and feeling sad” – you couldn’t put it better yourself. On ‘Falling’ he alludes to the fact he cheated on his ex, admitting that “there’s no one to blame but the drink and my wandering eyes,” while on ‘Cherry’ he mocks his exes new partner, asking: “Does he take you walking ‘round his parents’ gallery?”. And then there’s the deliciously saucy lyrics of ‘Watermelon Sugar’, which may or may not be about oral sex: “I just wanna taste it / Watermelon sugar high”.
Sometimes it borders on trite – the Queen-influenced introduction of ‘Treat People with Kindness’ sees a female choir proclaim: “Maybe we can find a place to feel good / And we can treat people with kindness / Find a place to feel good.” But as the choral introduction subsides into another banging pop tune, the clichés are forgiven.
There again, there are some lacklustre moments. Ballads such as ‘Falling’, for instance, are disappointing. It’s a saccharine heartbreak on an album otherwise bursting with personality and charm; there’s nothing on the track that would distinguish it from another weepy rock infused ballad – you could tell somebody that this was James Arthur or John Legend and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. New single ‘Adore You’ similarly does little to differentiate itself from being any other slice of generic chart fodder.
For the most part, though, Styles’ second album is a total joy. It’s an elegant combination of the ex-boybander’s influences, slick modern pop and his own roguish charm. On the last song, the euphoric, Bon Iver-inspired ‘Fine Line’, Styles comes full circle, seemingly feeling hopeful after his past heartbreak and indiscretions.
“We’ll be a fine line,” he croons over and over atop jubilant, lush orchestration, before adding: “We’ll be alright.” Given the quality of Styles second album, we’re inclined to agree.
Release date: December 13, 2019
Record label: Columbia