Sunday, December 15, 2019

Review: Fine Line • Harry Styles



History has taught us that only one supreme solo career can one disbanded group make. There’s a reason why Justin Timberlake outlived JC Chasez as a standalone headliner, or why Michael will always be named first in a run-down of the Jackson family tree. And yes, there’s even a least popular Beatle – George Harrison, if you’re curious. And while Zayn Malik, the self-inflicted outcast of One Direction, fired the starting pistol and hit the grounding running with his first record while the band wrapped up its victory lap, it seems Harry Styles will be the one to go the distance.

Styles’ self-titled debut record, released just a year after One Direction’s premeditated collapse, allowed him to take a healthy side-step from the band’s sterile pop-rock veneer: Reliant on traditional organic rock instrumentation, the record pays light homage to the psychedelic ‘70s. The prevailing influences and modern flair suited him nicely – and they have been tailored even closer on Fine Line, a record centered on age-old foolproof concepts: “Having sex and feeling sad.” We’ve all been there, brother.

The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and a whole slew of other soft rock bands – they’ve all been there, too, as Styles knows very well.  And sure, they may have captured the concepts a bit more elegantly than he does: No less than two songs on Fine Line put an explicit embargo on the word “baby,” his ex’s pet name for him, and many of his choruses, even one as sticky as “Watermelon Sugar,” are lyrically under-worked. For what he lacks in poetic depth and melodrama, however, he compensates in great music: It seems when his recent heartbreak bubbles into his throat, he swallows it in favor of allowing an easy listening record to prevail.

With a combined expertise in both pop and rock music, Jeff Bhasker, Tyler Johnson and Kid Harpoon continue to back Styles on Fine Line, pushing expectations for his soft rock and backroads folk. Though it opens the record well, “Golden” would make a scorching concert closer: Guitars and choral background vocals fill out the track beneath his moody melody. Thinner tracks, like “Cherry” and “Canyon Moon,” are charming in their own right – dressed in guitar strums and hand claps, they carry themselves like casual traveling songs, hummed off the cuff and compatible with his linear songwriting.

Backed by sun-kissed acoustics and crinkled keys, Styles captures a raw sound that refuses to fall defunct in the digital production era. There’s an equal chance “Sunflower, Vol. 6” could have been ripped from a slinky vintage project, or maybe a Tame Impala demo tape, or even maybe – in an alternate universe in which they made interesting music – a Twenty One Pilots record. Basic but full-bodied, his voice carries fine enough charisma for the style: His harmonies plume like a cloud of gold dust on standout track "Adore You," and his upper register adds most of the texture on the title track. And with all of these elements married happily across Fine Line, it's clear why Harry Styles has become a superstar in his own right. 

Fine Line is available now under Columbia Records.

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Maira Gall