Release Date: Dec 13, 2019
Record label: Sony Music
Genre(s): Pop, Pop/Rock, Teen Pop, Social Media Pop
Rating: NNNN When I arrive on Monday for the Fine Line listening session at British pub the Oxley in Yorkville, I hear a familiar sound: young women squeeing. "I'm so sorry," apologizes the publicist as she waves a hand in the direction of the enthusiastic group-selfie photo-takers in front of a large Fine Line album cover foamcore print. "The fan event is running a little late." I brush off the apology; after all, I'm among my people.
Has there ever been an artist quite like Harry Styles? Thrust into the limelight as a young teen, becoming part of an industry machine with the economic might of a small country overnight only to emerge the other end as a deft singer-songwriter with a perfect rock star identity? It took even closest compatriots Robbie Williams and George Michael some time to find their sound, whereas Harry's 2017 self-titled debut emerged as precisely the sum of its protagonist's parts - whether in the Stones swagger of 'Kiwi', the Elton strut of 'Woman', or even the Beck-like 'Carolina'. He's an unrepentant boybander who's unafraid to milk sacred cows old and new. He's got a sideline in legitimately serious acting roles and the sartorial flair of '80s Bowie having raided Elton John's vault.
At midnight on Friday 13 December, as the first of many Tory gains were being reported, the drop of this deeply longed-for album was demoted from a major life event to a barely-felt whisper; a queued-up tweet lost among the ticking timeline of misery. Over the course of a couple of late hours, the country became seemingly airtight from joy - and what is Harry Styles for if not the cultivation of joy? On his self-titled debut album, Styles showed understanding of his role as society's emotional support dreamboat. Soothing Fleetwood Mac/Rolling Stones musicality paired well with romanticised images of women, vague enough that the listener could neatly insert herself onto Styles' pedestal.
After debuting with a solo album that showed great promise and staked a claim for him as a serious pop force outside of One Direction, Harry Styles changed things up on 2019's Fine Line. Despite working with some of the same people who helped him tap into classic pop and rock influences on his debut, this time around the range of genres Styles dips into has grown to include the kind of warm '70s-inspired funk of Childish Gambino's "Awaken, My Love!" on the lovely "Watermelon Sugar," the expansive baroque chamber folk of Bon Iver on the title track, happily rustic Americana ("Canyon Moon"), and up-tempo Mark Ronson-style retro soul ("Treat People With Kindness"). There's no epic centerpiece like "Sign of the Times," no rambling, strutting rock & roll, but there is a much smoother sound overall thanks to the buffed-to-a-gleaming-shine production.
H arry 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.
It has been four years since One Direction gave their last performance on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve on 31st December 2015 . Since that moment each band member has been keeping busy with individual projects and none more so than Harry Styles. Fairly quickly, and confidently, he set out to pursue an indie flavoured route as per his eponymous debut from 2017, but this record is a more diverse kettle of fish, rich in nuance, genre, and overall inspiration.
The Lowdown: Harry Styles emerged from the wreckage of One Direction a full-fledged rock star on his 2017 eponymous solo debt, which showcased an artist who finally had access to world-class studios, a red-hot backing band, and all the David Bowie LPs of his dreams. The frontman tackled a smorgasbord of classic rock stylings with gusto and puppy-dog earnestness, only occasionally lapsing into pastiche. Still, Styles had convincingly reinvented himself as a global pop star with a rocker's heart, one who would only improve when given a few years to hone his craft.
B ack in 2017, Harry Styles's self-titled debut solo album attempted to rebrand his image from teen heart-throb to 1970s rock star, although many would argue he still leans heavily towards the former. With the release of his follow-up Fine Line, his idols - Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd - are less to the fore as Styles begins to find his own niche. He still sings the blues on breakup ballad Cherry, and gives us a taste of old school rock'n'roll on the jolly Canyon Moon and Treat People With Kindness.