Harry Styles: Fine Line review – idiosyncratic pop with heart and soul

(Columbia)

Harry Styles’ fanbase haven’t, like most, named themselves in his image, and it’s telling: Styles sometimes seems like the least important part of the package. He’s a blurry focal point, avoiding specific personal or political pronouncements. By vaguely standing for fluidity and tolerance, he creates a space for fantasy that perhaps he has realised is best left undisturbed. But to some, Styles’s aesthetic – whether the 70s California stylings of his self-titled debut or his conspicuously flamboyant attire – looked like window dressing on a blank shopfront.

Fine Line rectifies that by putting Styles’s identity, at least in one domain, front and centre as he grapples with a breakup. Is he the heartbreaker or heartbroken? Is he, on To Be So Lonely, the victim or “arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry”? The line, “no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands”, from Falling, has prompted tabloid headlines.

Even if you don’t care who he’s on about, he sells the story. The highs are preserved in vivid strawberry lipstick, golden skin, the bluest moons and brisk, sunny music. Golden is as limber and delightful as Phoenix tackling Crosby, Stills and Nash; Shawn Mendes would make the white-boy soul of Watermelon Sugar sound like a Body Shop advert, but Styles’s vocal physicality gives it a steamy heat.

And when the recriminations start, they’re barbed but – unlike the two-dimensional bad girls of his debut – limned with admiration and Styles’s own complicity. The languorous To Be So Lonely and She close in and become claustrophobic, like his late-night anxieties. The toothless gospel of Treat People With Kindness, the album’s only explicit message, is unnecessary – his fairness was already evident. (Plus, it sounds like an Olly Murs single.)

That song aside, his writing is much improved. “Does he take you walking around his parents’ gallery?” he asks slyly on Cherry, evoking another ex, Taylor Swift, with his embrace of incriminating detail. More idiosyncratic production brings out his vocal nuance: Sunflower, Vol 6 dabbles in the quizzical chatter of Vampire Weekend; on Canyon Moon, he saunters like a Hal Ashby-like leading man. Unlike his former One Direction bandmates, who swiftly picked their lanes, Styles is taking his time coming into focus. The results serve him – and his fans – well.

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Harry Styles: Lights Up review – soulful, enigmatic return
The former One Direction member’s second solo single is laced with surprises and sounds refreshingly like nothing his British male pop peers are doing

Laura Snapes

11, Oct, 2019 @1:39 PM

Article image
Harry Styles: Harry Styles review – ticking every box on the Take Me Seriously checklist
This post-One Direction debut is a melange of musical homages that fails to reach the heights of Styles’ idols. But one thing it isn’t is dull

Alexis Petridis

11, May, 2017 @11:01 PM

Article image
Two directions: why Harry Styles' new song is a breakthrough for bisexual music fans
From Nicki Minaj to Katy Perry, the ‘B’ in LGBTQ has long been overlooked or exploited by mainstream pop. But the former One Direction-er’s latest track is a sign of more inclusive times

Owen Myers

22, Mar, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Harry Styles: Harry Styles review – a diverting new direction
MOR tunes feature heavily on the One Direction man’s first solo venture, but there are some surprises lurking…

Kitty Empire

14, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Harry Styles debuts Sign of the Times. Is he really the new Bowie?
The ex-One Direction star’s solo turn has drawn frenzied whispers of Freddie Mercury and Ziggy Stardust. This crashing ballad swaps boyband for bombast

Tim Jonze

07, Apr, 2017 @9:33 AM

Article image
Taylor Swift and Harry Styles: a fine romance, but now it's over

She was a Disney princess, he was a boy-band singer, theirs was a love like no other

Hadley Freeman

10, Jan, 2013 @6:05 PM

Article image
Harry Styles: Fine Line review – confident, convincing and catchy
(Erskine/Columbia)

Gregory Robinson

15, Dec, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Harry Styles review: a frenzy of Jagger struts and pure happiness
Forum theatre, Melbourne
Out of the boy-band bubble and more rock star than pop, a Styles show for 2,000 is as intimate as fans are likely to get

Shaad D'Souza

01, Dec, 2017 @12:42 AM

Article image
Harry Styles: teen star turned serious player? | Observer profile
He was boyband One Direction’s most high-profile pin-up. But as his debut solo album proves, behind the marketing lies a smart young man

Jude Rogers

13, May, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Harry Styles review – a slow start before a true star emerges for hysterical fans
Styles’ rebranding from boyband frontman to solo artist is well under way, with some caveats that would sit well on a One Direction album

Michael Cragg

14, May, 2017 @12:22 PM