Music

Harry Styles’ second solo album, Fine Line, is at its best when the pop star reveals his vulnerable side, but the record needs some reining in. By Brodie Lancaster.

Harry Styles’ Fine Line

Harry Styles’ new album, Fine Line.
Credit: Supplied

Harry Styles already told us he wanted more horns. In 2015, while promoting Made in the A.M., the final record One Direction released before the four remaining members – including Styles – went their separate ways, the British pop star described the jaunty, Beatles-by-way-of-Willy-Wonka song “Olivia” as being still unfinished, because he’d requested more brass in the chorus. His producer, thinking the inclusion of more bombast was going overboard, omitted the horns – a fact Styles only learnt when listening to the mastered record for the first time.

On Fine Line, Styles’ second record as a solo artist, there was no one stopping him from indulging his every whim. And the success of his instincts bends drastically from one track to the next.

The penultimate song, “Treat People with Kindness”, should be a culmination of both Styles’ trademark brand of cheeky generosity and Fine Line’s well-established narrative of coming up for air after the disorientation of heartbreak. It features a choir espousing the message Styles has used as his raison d’être during his still-young solo career. On the sweatshirts he sells for $US60, the phrase “Treat people with kindness” is embroidered; Styles says it as he blows a kiss to crowds after concert encores; it’s said to be an implicit job requirement for the people he works with.

It’s a shame, then, that cementing the sentiment in song is so over the top that it creates distance where intimacy should be. In the imagined Sunday service of the song, as the choir sings, “Maybe we can find a place to feel good / And we can treat people with kindness,” Styles launches himself centre stage like James Brown anticipating the pageantry of “Please, Please, Please” but stumbles over the hem of his cape. Gospel is supposed to make listeners and singers alike transcend this existence and reach closer to God, but in this howling frenzy, the thing that Styles comes closest to worshipping is the notion of “us”, the pairing he is fixated on in this record.

Eternally coy about his romantic life, Styles is surprisingly clear about the source material for Fine Line: the aftermath of a break-up. While Styles refrains from naming her in interviews, the ex-partner in question appears to be French model Camille Rowe, whom he dated for a year and whose voice features on the track “Cherry”. The album charts the peaks and troughs of wallowing: infatuation and its annihilation, the bitterness that arrives afterwards and finally the clarity of starting over again.

It was inevitable that Styles’ solo career, unimpeded by the implicit demand of splitting attention and performance time with his bandmates in One Direction, would be drenched in undiluted charm and desire. Words such as roguish and impish and other -ishes have been deployed to describe him for the better part of the past decade, since he first auditioned for The X Factor in Britain as a teenage employee of his local bakery. His languid voice and cavernous dimples and tumble of curly hair made his eventual celebrity seem predestined. There was no way this boy would stay in the village of Holmes Chapel.

He grew up a fan of classic rock, a place where One Direction eventually found its niche in ’70s-filtered pop. They were the biggest band in the world for five years, so when it came time to write his debut solo record, Styles said he felt restricted, worried about getting it wrong, eager to prove himself anew. His first move, the almost six-minute operatic ballad “Sign of the Times”, showed pop’s heir apparent was eager to carve out a new space for himself to experiment in.

This time, his genre departures include “Fine Line”, a sparse confessional lifted directly from the Bon Iver playbook. His falsetto, layered and tinny, repeats the reassurance “We’ll be a fine line” as drums and horns build around him. It’s overwhelming in every sense of the word, making the concept of a fine line seem at once insignificant and a vital division, both invisible and consequential.

After tracking down the woman who built the dulcimers used in the 1960s by Joni Mitchell – who is one of his many musical obsessions – Styles sets the instrument on his lap for “Canyon Moon”, an ode to his adopted home of Los Angeles that surely nods to Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”. In singing about an old hippie woman who “plays songs I’ve never heard”, he feels natural, homing in on the peculiarities of hope, keeping the literal bells and whistles to a minimum. Noise tends to carry in the canyon, after all.

“Lights Up”, the record’s first single, is given new context on the album, coming after tracks stuffed with heady affirmations and pleas. Suddenly, Styles’ cries of “Shine!” seem less an encouragement and more a demand he’s making of himself as he fears change but knows he needs to accept it.

The video for that track depicts Styles naked, sweaty, writhing in a group of similarly peaking people of all genders. The fact the song was released on October 11 – National Coming Out Day – led many to frame it as a “bisexual anthem”, some kind of disclosure from an artist who’s teased the public with the edges of his sexuality without ever saying much about where they begin or end.

In Styles’ image, his fans have been able to find a reflection of whatever they hoped to see, whether it’s there or not. The effect is one that reassures his queer supporters that consuming Harry Styles is a symbol of community. The Fine Line cover art depicts Styles in his uniform: a silk shirt, high-waisted flares and platform boots; his hip cocked, mouth left open, body angled like a sexy little teapot. Earlier this year he co-hosted the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, the theme of which took cues from Susan Sontag’s landmark essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”. Styles mentioned how Stevie Nicks’s music is the catalyst for “running mascara – including my own” during his speech at her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While touring his first record, he began playing the still-unreleased track “Medicine”, which mentions “mess[ing] around with” boys and girls. He’s been clever and considered about the way he handles gender and sexuality, if a little savvy and strategic.

After all, he’s provided a sequel to “Woman”, a track on his debut, with one here titled “She”. For all his inclusivity on stage and in interviews, the classic rock jumps out in Styles’ discography with an over-reliance on rote descriptions of women. “She” is a riffing, improvised-sounding jam about someone faceless, a generic dream-girl trope too nondescript to leave a mark, let alone a scar. Styles is lovely and thoughtful by all accounts, his entire brand centred on kindness. But as a result he has often been observed but not scrutinised, consumed but not critiqued. And when the latter does occur, as when he’s weathered accusations of queer-baiting listeners, it’s shrugged off as hate.

The most revealing and appealing moments on Fine Line come at his own expense, when he allows himself to be the bad guy, the sore and scorned ex waking up with an empty bed and regret. “What if I’m someone you won’t talk about?” he worries aloud on “Falling”, as if the concept of being forgotten, or being thought of as insignificant, is too great a burden to bear.

On “Cherry” he’s pissy, sneaking gibes about his ex’s new boyfriend and showing his underbelly in a rare departure into vulnerability. In a recent interview, radio presenter Zane Lowe commented to Styles that listeners had deduced his single “Watermelon Sugar” was “about the joys of mutually appreciated oral pleasure”. With his dimple threatening to dig its way out the back of his head, Styles replied, “Is that what it’s about?” One Direction wasn’t a group targeted at children, but the very thought of people knowing he was sexually active while in the band was essentially a taboo, Styles recalled. Now he’s opening himself up, harvesting and squeezing fruit analogies until his forearms are sticky, as he cries out, “I just wanna taste it!” He’s letting us in, but in some places the work he has to reveal is a clearly defined portrait, while in others it’s a hurried and foggy landscape of a place he still makes us want to visit.

 

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA Feedback Loops

Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until March 22

CULTURE Tarnanthi: Grandmother Lore

Migration Museum, Adelaide, until January 27

MUSIC Gondwana Choirs: Voices of Angels — 12 Days of Christmas

City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 16-17

VISUAL ART That Seventies Feeling... the Late Modern

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until March 9

VISUAL ART Norman Lindsay: Fauns and Ladies

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until March 15

VISUAL ART Of the Sun

Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, NSW, until January 25

BALLET The Nutcracker

QPAC, Brisbane, until December 21

VISUAL ART John Olsen: Recent Works

Olson Gallery, Sydney, until January 20

VISUAL ART Adelaide Cool: The abstract art of David and John Dallwitz

Art Gallery of South Australia , Adelaide, until April 5

MUSICAL Chicago

Arts Centre, Melbourne, until January 19

MUSEUM Apollo 11 Exhibition

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, until June 30

VISUAL ART Lloyd Rees

Museum of Brisbane, until March 1

Last chance

DANCE Native Owned

Sydney Opera House, December 14

THEATRE Punk Rock

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until December 15

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Flirty Harry".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Brodie Lancaster
is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe