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. So, when the 25-year-old heartthrob told Rolling Stone his sophomore LP was “all about having sex and feeling sad,” fans were naturally delighted that it would reflect his two greatest skills.
Turns out he was only being half-truthful. On Fine Line, Styles trades in his two primary muses, Jagger and Bowie, for a host of new inspirations: Fleetwood Mac, Ram-era McCartney, and power-pop icons Badfinger and Big Star. The result is an airy, melancholy album that diplomatically addresses heartache while declining to wallow in it. Fine Line is often disarmingly vulnerable and brimming with cunning observations, yet it’s also woefully short on moments of unadulterated rawk, content to smolder when a fireball of sexual bravado would have been preferred.
The Good: Fine Line is at its best when it’s at its most specific, as its middle (and strongest) third tackles the stages of romantic grief. “There’s a piece of you in how I dress, take it as a compliment,” Styles croons on the aching “Cherry,” a spiritual successor to his own “Sweet Creature” that would sound right at home on the back end of Rubber Soul (the Capitol version, duh). It’s seemingly about Styles’ ex-girlfriend, French model Camille Rowe; a voicemail playing over the fade-out eliminates any doubt. Up next is the gorgeous piano ballad “Falling”, a readymade mid-set tearjerker if there ever was one. “The coffee’s out at the Beachwood Cafe, and it kills me ’cause I know we’ve run out of things we can say,” Styles laments, taking a cue from another ex and fellow chart-topper Taylor Swift by turning an intimate, personal moment into a portrait of universal heartbreak.
The boy’s not too proud to cop to his own faults, though. “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry,” Styles confesses on “To Be So Lonely,” another acoustic ditty that aspires to the ramshackle charm of McCartney’s pastoral work. And on the sultry “She”, the singer acknowledges that his ideal woman is just a figment of his imagination who’s confined to his daydreams. It sounds like the most painful admission of all, as Styles yelps in an anguished falsetto that gives way to Mitch Rowland’s smoky (albeit slightly pedestrian) outro guitar solo. It’s the closest Styles and his bandmates come to fully cutting loose, and that flexing is sorely missed on the rest of Fine Line. What’s a classic rock record without some histrionics?
The Bad: Unfortunately, while Styles has sharpened his lyricism, he’s sacrificed some charisma and his knack for a stadium-sized hook. Nothing here matches the effortless sing-along quality of “Carolina” or the sweaty adrenaline rush of “Kiwi” (and there’s not a single lyric half as nonsensically brilliant as “When she’s alone, she goes home to a cactus”). The plodding “Watermelon Sugar” commits the cardinal sin of being far less interesting than its title while psychedelic trifle “Sunflower, Vol. 6” is a marvelous instrumental showcase that forgets to be an engrossing song.
Styles also sells some of these tracks short by restraining himself vocally. He never rises above speaking volume on album opener “Golden”, stripping the propulsive groove and indelible, Fleetwood Mac-inspired backing vocals of their thunder. He sleepwalks through the campy “Treat People with Kindness”, leaving the heavy lifting to a gospel choir and funky guitar break cribbed from Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride”. By the time he lets out an ecstatic shriek and requisite “All together now!” in the outro chorus, it’s too little, too late.
The Verdict: Styles is a more confident and precise songwriter on Fine Line than on his debut, even if the progress is incremental rather than exponential. He gives himself space to brood and invites listeners to dissect his anguish. Now, Styles needs to be reminded that honesty and raucousness are not mutually exclusive, and “distortion” isn’t a dirty word. If he combines the roguish energy of his debut with the bittersweet sincerity of Fine Line, he may just reach the glorious heights of his rock and roll forebears. Harry Styles has mastered the art of being sad. Here’s to more sex on LP3.
Essential Tracks: “Cherry”, “Falling”, and “She”