By Eden Szymura
Harry Styles’ second solo record, Fine Line, marks a shift in the artist’s career, bringing us a collection of work that is significantly more full-bodied and mature than his last, self-titled, project. Unlike his debut, which was as much a statement of intent as it was a musical record, Fine Line does not need to establish Styles against the boyband sound of One Direction. Removed from that pressure, this new album features much tighter song-writing with an emphasis on personal experience that was previously lacking.
After navigating his teens in the circus lights of a boyband, if anyone deserves creative freedom, it’s him.
Fine Line opens with the catchy harmonies of “Golden”, a powerhouse of energy that sees Styles dipping into his falsetto to sugar-coat the lyrics “I know that you’re scared because hearts get broken”. Clearly one to leave Easter eggs within his songs, Fine Line’s next track, the guitar-heavy “Watermelon Sugar”, is rumoured to be a celebration of oral sex. Along with the raspy, seductive ‘She’, such a move exploits Styles’ status as a sex-symbol whilst simultaneously moving him further away from the more restrained song content of One Direction.
Indeed, the Harry Styles presented in this album is unapologetic and self-assured with Fine Line more freely exploring the singer’s sexuality. The incredibly catchy “Lights Up” – and its accompanying music video – arguably celebrates the freedom of coming out through the chorus “Step into the light /So bright sometimes/ I’m not ever going back”. The album artwork also makes reference to the bisexual and transgender pride flags, an action which has been both supported by the LGBTQ+ community as well as drawing accusations of queer-baiting.
Indeed, the Harry Styles presented in this album is unapologetic and self-assured with Fine Line more freely exploring the singer’s sexuality.
In his avoidance of self-defining labels, one hopes that Fine Line displays as authentic a vulnerability about Styles’ sexuality as it does the breakdown of his relationship with the model, Camille Rowe. “Cherry”, detailing the couple’s break up, is the standout track of the album. Styles wears his heart on his sleeve, singing as he picks the guitar, “I just miss your accent and your friends/ Did you know I still talk to them?”. Not one to do anything half-heartedly, Styles even samples Rowe, speaking in French, throughout the song. Such openness – also shown in “Falling”, which discusses poor mental health – is refreshing for an artist that can come across as untouchable.
The pacing of the album trails off towards the end, with “Sunflower Vol. 6”, “Canyon Moon”, and “Treat People with Kindness” being the weaker thematic songs of the album. After Styles has laid himself bare earlier in the record, hearing him in a light-hearted tone feels uncomfortable. And yet, even in its weakest moments, this is an album that is far from contrived. In a startlingly honest interview with Zane Lowe, Styles spoke at length about the importance of enjoying the creative process and making what he wants now, regardless of commercial viability.
Of course, as the former spearhead of One Direction, Styles is in an extremely privileged position to say such a thing. But, in a music industry where performers are often boxed-in to target particular markets, Harry Styles does seem intent on carving his own distinct path. After navigating his teens in the circus lights of a boyband, if anyone deserves creative freedom, it’s him.
This is an album that is far from contrived.
The album’s title-track and final offering, “Fine Line”, brings an emotional resolution to the highs and lows of the relationship explored throughout the record. A stripped-back acoustic track that relies on Styles’ falsetto and the crescendo of piano and horns, this cut affirms “we’ll be alright” to smoothly round off the album.
Through this record, Styles mostly succeeds in finding an authentic version of himself as an artist. At its best, Fine Line transcends the clichéd journey of self-discovery by exposing a new vulnerability to the singer, a rare honesty at his elite level of stardom.
Image credit: Fiona McKinlay via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.