In a Rolling Stone profile earlier this year, Harry Styles recalled how he kept watching this interview with David Bowie on his phone for inspiration. In the clip, Bowie offers this chestnut about creativity: “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
Styles was invoking his own artistic process, illuminating the lengths to which he hoped to travel on his second solo album, Fine Line. He was also demonstrating the invincible oblivion of even our most charming pop stars. For Styles, Fine Line is the sound of an artist plumbing the abyss. For us, it’s the sound of a celebrity sticking his toes in the sand. It’s ostensibly his freedom record, one that indulges his every musical and psychedelic whim. It is also removed enough from One Direction to finally not be judged in relationship to them (unlike his spare and often lovely self-titled debut from 2017). By corralling a new flock of influences—from ’70s power pop and Laurel Canyon folk-rock to the sort-of soul of Coldplay—Styles showcases his gift for making music that sounds like good music.
Which is to say the actual sound of Fine Line is incredible, and most songs have at least one great moment to grab hold of: the clusters of background harmonies on “Golden,” the synth sweeps throughout “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” the strange and alluring pre-chorus on “Lights Up,” a song that embodies Styles’ fluorescent charm, his swagger, his desire to be both weird and adored. He has talked recently about his fear of making music after he left One Direction, the pressure of finding a radio single. But to hear him sing sun-warmed, folk-tinged acoustic rock backed by only a handful of musicians is refreshing. There were easier, more callow roads for him to take.
While the music wades into the mystic, his songwriting, pointedly, does not. Fine Line, in part, deals with Styles’ breakup with the French model Camille Rowe, but he renders their romance in the primary colors of needing you, missing you, and remembering you. Emotional beats rise and fall with all the stakes of a refill on a glass of water. Styles doesn’t have the imagination of Bowie or another pop-rock touchpoint here, Fleetwood Mac, who took their lives and transfigured them through cosmic fantasia or Victorian grandeur. Styles’ attempts at this mode worked slightly better on his more austere debut, but in this rainbow-parade of psychedelic pop, the dullness is cast into sharp relief.
The same Styles who sang the unforgettable line, “Even my phone misses your call, by the way” just one album ago, can’t muster a memorable flourish, a vivid image, or the same diaristic self-dramatizing wink as Taylor Swift. Instead, feet firmly planted on the shore, Styles simply summarizes and apologizes and reflects as if he were just telling this story to his mates. During the stretch of ballads that comprise the middle third of the album, he sings, “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry,” and, “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” What these earnest text messages reveal about Styles is that he has a desire to do right, to be a good person, or at least to be seen as one. And that’s it—we remain no closer to understanding him as a songwriter or solo artist.
The musicians here—including songwriters Kid Harpoon and Jeff Bhasker, keyboardist Tyler Johnson, and guitarist Mitch Rowland, among others—summon a retro live-band sound, no producer tags, no chart-storming aesthetics. But Styles treats them more like a collection of instruments than an actual band, which makes the anonymous two-minute guitar solo at the end of “She” seem pretty meaningless on a Harry Styles solo record. Even more infuriating is “Treat People With Kindness,” an awful chimera of Jesus Christ Superstar and Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” that confuses hand-claps with happiness. Each song is a new outfit for Styles, hoping one will carry his reality-competition voice and illuminate his reality-competition lyrics.
There are glimpses, like in “Canyon Moon,” of the sort of intimate connection Styles hopes to forge. It’s one of those running-with-a-kite-down-a-grassy-hill songs, covered in ringing acoustic guitars that evoke his bright smile. “Cherry,” rises out of the cliche and into something darker and lasting and Swiftian: “I noticed that there’s a piece of you in how I dress/Take it as a compliment.” Styes is here, buried underneath the fame and the fear. I hear his sweetness, his charm, his elegance. But mostly I hear a guy who’s still afraid he’ll never make a David Bowie record.
Buy: Rough Trade
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