Harry Styles Is Sunkissed and Sentimental on ‘Fine Line’

Harry Styles set himself apart from his former One Direction bandmates with a debut solo album that surprised fans and critics alike with its rich realization of latent proclivities. Drawing from ‘70s rock and psychedelia, and adapting Bowie rockstar posturing to a post-boy band heart throb mold, Styles made a strong start with his 2017 self-titled record. His followup “Fine Line” continues these tendencies, with a new focus on a few particular sounds, especially lighthearted funk and the folk-rock stylings associated with California’s Laurel Canyon. Largely inspired by Styles’ ex-girlfriend, French model Camile Rowe, the new set of effortlessly infectious songs explores the highs and lows of a relationship, and the fine line at the center of it all. 

Opener “Golden” sounds like Styles is beginning to feel the effects of California. From the first few seconds, it’s bright, beaming, and gilded, with its “da-da-da” refrain, hummable melodies, punchy pop stomp and airy chorus of “You’re so golden” starting things off on in a decidedly celebratory and giddy spirit. Next, single “Watermelon Sugar” builds on the established mood, keeping it light, funky, and supremely sumerry, although Styles’ voice takes on greater depths amid this breezy backdrop, as he recalls the tastes of a special summer past. Like much of the new album, the song is presumably inspired by Rowe, who left Styles with a few books including Richard Brautigan’s post-apocalyptic novel “In Watermelon Sugar,” although the similarities seem to end with the title. 

“Adore You” adopts an ‘80s backbone, and keeps the summer imagery coming over synth bass and an insistent beat, with Styles singing, “You’re wonder under summer sky / Brown skin and lemon over ice” in tandem with gleeful backing singers and indulgent bursts of guitar. Next, lead single “Lights Up” is the most transcendent moment yet, with Styles hovering over delicate piano figures, percussive splatter, and angelic choirs. It’s at once an infectious tune and a marked transition from the straightforward, feelgood fare of the opening tracks to the second stage of the album.  

Come “Cherry,” all the giddiness that began the album seems to have dissipated, leaving Styles fractured over a bare, acoustic backdrop, reflecting, “Don’t you call him ‘baby’… Don’t you call him what you used to call me,” and making the song especially personal by including an actual recording of Camile Rowe’s voice near the song’s end. Things get darker yet on “Falling,” with Styles’ impassioned and tortured gospel-tinged stylings a long way from the carefree splendor of “Watermelon Sugar,” with his voice nearly cracking as he hits the high notes, giving the sense of Icarus after the fall, and making for a climactic moment. 

The rebound from these depths begins promptly with “To Be So Lonely,” with its winsome introductory melody heralding Styles’ reemergence in a voice that sounds somewhat healed, as he sings, “Don’t blame me for falling / I was just a little boy,” essentially shrugging it all off and taking a step forward, over an effectively understated arrangement of handclaps and subdued strings. “She” sinks neatly into the emergent mood, settles into a groove, and takes the form of a sprawling rock track, assuming unprecedented proportions, replete with ringing guitars, bends and slides every which way. It marks a slight resurgence of the classic rock proclivities indulged on Styles’ debut album, and at any rate, shows Styles gaining traction and having a bit of fun. 

Out of the blue comes “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” which could hardly sound more like a Vampire Weekend song, in its guitar lines, vocal melodies, and practically everything else. In spite of all this, it doesn’t come across as a cheap rip-off, but as a delightful tribute of sorts, with Styles’ voice and the goofy, excessive synth flourishes enough to set it apart. When Style sings, “Sunflowers just die / Keep it sweet in your memory,” he appears to be setting the example with his own tune. Bright and outlandish, unlike anything else in the set, it’s easily one of the most interesting songs, and the first of a triptych that sustains its sonic architecture. The jaunty “Canyon Moon” gets even cheerier, keeping the vibe going, with congas added to the mix, and a whistled melody in the chorus, as Styles declares, “I’m going, oh, I’m going,” then turning things on their head by adding the word “home.”

A bizarre left field excursion comes in “Treat People With Kindness,” its admirable title lifted from a slogan Styles has used for merchandising since his first solo tour. The introductory female vocal sounds as if meant to accompany an interpretive dance routine on a commune of sorts. In due time, the funk elements that prevailed in opening tracks returns, along with more congas or bongos, with Styles lifting to soaring heights, sounding as if he has perhaps gone a little nutty in his emotional recovery process, but reached a peak nonetheless. Finally, the ethereal title track ties the whole affair together – the gleeful excesses and the abysmal plunges, the triumph and tragedy. Styles sings, “We’ll be a fine line,” sounding at once vulnerable and resilient, repeating the mantra until exultant horns envelop him. 

There is hardly a misstep to be found on “Fine Line.” Every song stands on its own, and serves a purpose in the greater whole, creating a condensed, pointed pop statement. The few peculiar moments along the way balance out the prevailing smoothness elsewhere. The songs are about your standard relationship fare, and the lyrics do not purport to be anything profound, but always come across as sincere, in tunes that resonate. The album is refreshing in how it makes use of organic band dynamics, a rather surprising choice for someone of Styles’ background, and one that suits him well. In spite of its being split approximately halfway into dark and light stages, the songs are all decidedly bright in tone, painted with pastel colors consistent with the cover art, and giving the record a sound all of its own.

Fine Line” is available Dec. 13 on Apple Music.