If Harry Styles raised the bar with his superb self-titled solo debut in 2017, then his sophomore album takes the bar, loads it into a rocket and shoots it up to the moon.
Fine Line (out Friday, December 13) is an instantly timeless body of work by one of the most forward-thinking, creative individuals in the music industry today. Across a dozen tracks, Styles, 25, utilizes his artistry as a tool to mend a broken heart on the heels of his 2018 breakup from model Camille Rowe. He pulls back the curtain in ways he never has before, giving fans an honest and intimate — yet still vigilantly guarded — glimpse into his personal life.
Heartbreak takes center stage on much of the record. An ex-girlfriend presumed to be Rowe even makes an uncredited appearance in the form of a voicemail at the end of “Cherry,” cooing, giggling and speaking her native French over the plucks of an acoustic guitar. On the reflective, slow-building Bon Iver-esque track, Styles’ vocals are soft and slightly distorted as he laments about missing his muse’s accent and her friends. He also wonders whether her new man takes her “walking ‘round his parents’ gallery,” and urges her not to “call him what you used to call me.”
Styles is even more of an open book on the standout piano ballad “Falling.” The tearjerker feels as though its lyrics have been ripped straight from his diary (“You said you care / And you missed me too / And I’m well aware I write too many songs about you”) while highlighting the hurt in his voice, which comes close to cracking in the chorus but never fully wavers.
The album is not all sadness and sorrow, though. Styles buzzes with positive energy on the massive, brassy single “Watermelon Sugar” and the penultimate “Treat People With Kindness.” The latter is a dancey rock number that opens with what can only be described as a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-like a cappella chorale, and closes with Styles channeling his inner Beatle by shouting, “All together now!” and letting out a loud shriek. “Sunflower, Vol. 6” is Styles’ biggest departure from One Direction to date, ignoring pop music’s standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure and instead going full indie. It could easily pass as a Vampire Weekend cut.
Fine Line is jam-packed with high-quality live instrumentation, which complements Styles’ stronger-than-ever pipes. The magnificent opener “Golden” is the sonic equivalent of a long drive down a Malibu highway on a summer night with the top down. Underlaid by a melodic “da da da” chant made to be played to a stadium crowd, Styles croons, “I don’t wanna be alone.” The stomping rock rhythm carries over to “Adore You,” an otherworldly, lovestruck jam with a heavenly chorus and a smooth electric guitar solo.
Throughout the project, Styles’ band experiments with different sounds. A flamenco guitar jumpstarts “To Be So Lonely,” while the six-minute saga “She” and the psychedelic lead single “Lights Up” ambitiously lean into Tame Impala’s signature synth territory. “Canyon Moon,” meanwhile, has a laid-back, familial, sit-around-the-campfire-and-sing-along vibe, with Styles himself playing a dulcimer.
The album concludes with the beautifully bare-bones title track, fading to black with a euphoric instrumental. “We’ll be all right” are the last words that Styles utters, an important reminder to not only the listener but also his once-heartbroken self. Onward and upward.
4 stars (out of 4)