This is probably the hardest album review I have ever had to write. No, not because I didn’t like it (though I am also notoriously bad at negatively reviewing things I don’t like). And no, not because I don’t have a lot to say. In fact, it is so hard because my feelings are the exact opposite of both of these. I was never a huge Harry Styles fan. I mean, I didn’t dislike him, but I was never blown away either. I have not been listening since the One Direction days and when I heard his debut solo effort, I was left … underwhelmed.
I felt like he was trying really hard to push a new image that just wasn’t there. He wanted to be the next big rock star; the next Elton John. He wasn’t. Harry Styles, whether he likes it or not, is rooted in pop music. Considering he tried so hard to block off these roots in his first, self-titled album, I was expecting more of the same this time around. Boy, was I wrong. I have so much to say about “Fine Line.” First off: I love it.
In his sophomore release, Styles has realized his strengths and blended them with his new image. Immediately upon the release of his first single, “Lights Up,” fans were stunned with the sounds of synth pop mixed with the classic acoustic guitar that was so central to his first album. The music video — which experimented with flashing lights (fitting to the name), jarring stills of a corpse-like Styles, motorcycle rides under a red glow, and what appears to be a giant orgy — introduced fans to a side of the singer we had only seen hints of before.
In “Lights Up,” we are learning about Styles’ struggle with his own identity and what gender, sexuality and humanity mean to him. Watching the video, hearing the gorgeous vocals and tearing apart every lyric, I found myself more invested in a single song than I had been since Lorde’s “Green Light” back in 2017. And I knew if “Lights Up” was to “Fine Line” what “Green Light” was to the spiraling masterpiece that is “Melodrama,” we were going to be in for quite a ride.
Following up “Lights Up” with “Watermelon Sugar,” released the same day he performed it on “Saturday Night Live,” the English singer gave us a peak of how diverse the sound on “Fine Line” would be. Compared to the introspective doom and gloom of “Lights Up,” the tune is summery and light and somehow perfectly encompasses what Rolling Stone says the album is about: “a 25-year-old navigating the seas of having sex and feeling sad.”
With the video for the third single (narrated by Rosalía), “Adore You,” we find ourselves in Eroda (adore backwards), a fictional island full of superstition and no smiles. Here, a young Styles, who loves to smile, finds himself alone and attempts suicide by drowning before discovering a fish who, just like him, feels isolated in his community. He befriends the lonely fish, but soon it gets too big for its tank. In the end, the fish becomes so gargantuan that Styles must release it back to its home in the sea and learn to move on. It is a perfect — if a bit obvious — metaphor for his real-life relationships and fits the catchy, lovesick nature of the song just right.
However, the magic of “Fine Line” does not stop at the singles. There’s plenty for everyone and everything seems to work together so seamlessly (except the confusing and a bit obnoxious “Treat People With Kindness”). From the album’s rock-inspired opener, “Golden,” to the minutes-long guitar solo on “She,” to the twitching brilliance of the upbeat “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” the whole thing is like an emotional hug for your ears. Even the folksy “Canyon Moon,” whose genre would usually turn me off, had me drawn in and wanting more.
There are a few tracks that are extra special though. “Cherry” is one of them. Styles’ almost crooning voice as he begs his ex-lover not to call her new lover “baby” like she did to him is heartbreaking. When he admits, “I just miss your accent and your friends,” before asking, “Did you know I still talk to them?” … I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. There are no words. But the real kicker is how the music then immediately halts as he questions, “Does he take you walking ‘round his parents’ gallery?” before picking right back up into the chorus and ending with the echoing voice of that lover speaking French in a voicemail. The result is absolutely haunting.
Oh, but we are not let off the hook there. Following “Cherry,” we have the tear-jerking ballad “Falling,” which laments the struggle of falling in love with someone who no longer loves you back for a second time. Then we are led into the beautiful plucking of guitar strings that opens “To Be So Lonely,” which starts by stating, “Don’t blame me for falling” (oh, the connections). Speaking of connections, “To Be So Lonely” is full of them. While “Cherry” finds the 25-year-old wallowing over his lost love and asking she not call her new man “baby,” “To Be So Lonely” shows us Styles in the process of moving on and needing to separate himself from that part of his life, telling her “Don’t call me ‘baby’ again” or try to be friends with him because it’s hard for Styles “to go home and be so lonely.” The journey he takes across these three tracks is astounding.
Finally, we reach the closing song and crown jewel of the album, the title track, “Fine Line.” Starting off slowly with only a few whispers and harmonies before leading into the album’s all-too-familiar guitar strums, this last hurrah tells the story of the fine line between lover and full-fledged relationship. From my understanding, Styles has found another person in place of his ex, as evidenced by the words, “We’ll get the drinks in so I’ll get to thinking of her.” Their physical connection is what is keeping them together (“Spreading you open is the only way of knowing you”), but they are on the verge of becoming something more. He is finally getting over his past by creating something new. And as the song crescendos with horns and high-pitched shrieks, one can’t help but feel like they’re watching the end of some teen indie movie, the camera glimmering with sunspots as the screen flashes over and over between our two main characters as they say goodbye for the very last time. It is an exquisite finish to an exquisite album. I am officially a Harry Styles fan and I can’t wait to see what comes next.