Harry Styles's new album is outrageously good
People as famous as Harry Styles are almost never alone. From the cadre of security guards, stylists, publicists, managers, and hangers-on, a small army necessarily follows wherever they go. As irony dictates, though, fame, especially on the level that Styles has experienced since One Direction became the only thing young girls cared about in 2010, is curiously isolating. And while the 25-year-old often appears remarkably at ease with his surroundings—his dimpled smile never falters, not even at the apex of 1D’s fandemonium—a poignant fear of loneliness courses through Styles's magnificent second album, Fine Line, out now.
“I don’t wanna be alone,” the singer admits on the shimmying album-opener “Golden.” Belying the warm tones of the accompanying slide-guitar, glockenspiel, and summery da-da-da backing vocals, he continues: “Don’t wanna let you know,” he sings, comfortable and in the center of his range, “I don’t wanna be alone/But I can feel it take a hold.” On “To Be So Lonely,” driven by a toe-tapping double cello bass rhythm, he’s drunk and desperate to fill the void. “Don’t blame the drunk caller,” he begs an ex-lover. “I wasn’t ready for it all.” Later, on the same cut, he explains. “It’s hard for me to go home/And be so lonely."
It’s a startling one-two punch of vulnerability from the 21st century's emergent rock god. In an age of highly curated Instagram feeds and meticulously managed celebrity images, he’s dedicated the LP to “all that I’ve done. The good and the bad.” “That is life,” he writes in the collection’s liner notes. Styles may be talking about the mixed bag of experiences that define reality, but the same could be said of Fine Line. A candid autobiography written in technicolor rock n’ roll, it’s an album about Becoming and across its 12 songs, bears remarkable witness to a young man in the middle of self-reckoning.
The singer landed his first surprise back in 2017 with his self-titled solo debut. The easy-rolling set bucked the very established path set by Justin Timberlake and boybanders going solo, like Nick Jonas and Styles’ former group groupmate, Zayn Malik: embrace R&B and hip-hop. Lots of it. Instead, Styles dressed his introspective musings in the trappings of 1970s soft-rock. The results were enthralling, as he confidently toyed with “Blackbird”-era Beatles and Bowie.
Fine Line is less concerned about honoring Styles's idols, though, and more interested in experimenting with the furthest corners of his curiosity. Save for an appearance from Greg Kurstin (Beck, Adele), who lends a hand to the transcendent “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” many of his cohorts are familiar from Harry Styles: super-producer Jeff Bhasker, one of the main architects of the Hot 100’s current sound via his work with Bruno Mars, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and a wide swath of others; songwriter-producer (and Bhasker acolyte) Tyler Johnson (Taylor Swift, Cam); and Kid Harpoon (Florence + the Machine, Maggie Rogers). Together they find a thrilling new sonic terrain—one where gooey Fleetwood Mac-style melodies get wrapped in mille-feuille-esque layers of synth, Crosby, Stills, & Nash-reminiscent acoustic strummers get sandwiched between psychedelic trips to fantasy land, and electric-sitar solos scream of yesterday and tomorrow.
Put more simply, it’s fun as hell.
It’s also full of tantalizing lyrical Easter eggs, for those (many!) fans who crave them. “I just miss your accent and your friends,” he laments on “Cherry,” the set standout, which makes a chugging folk-electronica hybrid sound inevitable, undeniable. If there was any doubt that he was mourning the demise of his relationship with Paris-born model Camille Rowe, who Styles reportedly dated for about a year, the song’s coda—a recording of her cooing in French—swiftly settles it. He follows with the regret-soaked “Falling,” a moving lullaby of self-realization. “And there’s no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands,” he confides early about his break-up. “What am I now?/What if I'm someone I don't want around?” he sings repeatedly throughout the chorus. “What if I’m someone you won't talk about?,” he adds, his voice reaching its desperate edge as the song peaks.
It’s an almost impossible insecurity to consider, as all we want is more.