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.