The eagerly awaited sophomore album from Harry Styles, Fine Line, is adequately satisfying musically but surprisingly rich lyrically. The album, reflecting the bright pink and white tones present on the album cover, is full of upbeat and polished pop tunes, perfect for a top-down drive in a dream vision of California. If you were to listen to the music alone, you might mistake the album for a breezy confection. However, when you dig deeper and look at the lyrics, there is a coherent structure and emotional arc to the album that is universally relatable while unmistakably specific.
In broad strokes, you could break the album into a few chunks: tracks one through four are the upbeat, optimistic, and lusty tracks that accompany the rosy days of a romantic relationship. Tracks five through eight follow the breakup and post-breakup malaise and tracks nine through 12 are the post-post-breakup phase when you’re putting yourself back together with lessons learned and hope for the future.
The album opener, “Golden,” has been described by Styles himself as a “Malibu song,” and that is entirely accurate. The song has a shimmery quality that feels like the aural equivalent of a perfect golden tan next to a blue ocean; the song itself is ideal pop hookiness with “da da da-das” sprinkled in with reliably catchy effect. “Watermelon Sugar” is not as playful as it could be, as it toes the line of its sexy metaphors, but it is an ideal track for a summer poolside jam. (Side note: This is a June album if I ever heard one! Why is it here in December?)
“Adore You” introduces some funkier elements, and brings in some evocative imagery with lines like “you’re wonder under summer sky/Brown skin and lemon over ice.” These lyrics evoke a more sensual song than we get; Styles’ vocal performance is urgent, rather than relaxed, and that is likely meant to reflect the semi-desperate pleading inherent in the narrative, but it takes away some variety that could have been lent to this track. “Lights Up” however, amends that and essentially becomes the song I wanted “Adore You” to be. One of the most common “problems,” although that may be too strong of a word, on the album is its regular fall into repetitive pop choruses. Once a chorus is found, we must stick to it or die. That only gets a bit frustrating when there are other signs of experimentation and dynamism on the album, which indicate that Styles’ musical muscles could have stretched an inch further. “Lights Up” employs some dynamic elements, particularly in the bridge, which pull you into the song in an undeniably appealing way.
The next phase of the album is a slower, sadder section, but it manages quite well to capture the feelings of several post-breakup stages. “Cherry” uses its tame and even melody to reflect the resigned acknowledgment that there isn’t anything left to do except be sad about losing this person. The lyrics get at specific tensions that come up when forcibly moving someone out of your life, like recognizing the impression they made on you (“I noticed that there’s a piece of you in how I dress”) and the unexpectedly memorable details of a person (“I miss your accent and your friends/ did you know I still talk to them?”).
“Falling” includes a meta touch, with the line “I’m well aware I write too many songs about you,” just as we’re in the middle of an album of songs about “you.” This song traces the spiraling into pity that occurs when you know you’ve lost someone. It’s a pity party song, but we’ve all been there and have all needed that song. “To Be So Lonely” is most clever when echoing a line in “Cherry.” In “Cherry,” Styles sings, “don’t you call him baby,” and now he pleads, “don’t call me baby.” This change reflects the transformation from just recently having been someone’s person to having to reckon with the fact that they have someone new and that the connection you once had is over. The singer is trying to separate himself from a person entirely but is having trouble, as evidenced by the apology for a drunken phone call. The gentle melody of the song evokes the head-down embarrassment of not being able to move on. But the movement here away from heartfelt balladry also indicates the resolve to move on after one last show of desperation.
The last third of the album may be the most dynamic, as the first two are primarily each about one thing. The final section demonstrates multiple shades of returning to yourself after an impactful relationship. “She” imagines the ideal partner who might still be out there and complements its lyrics such as “she lives in daydreams with me, I don’t know why/ I don’t know where she is” with equally dreamy instrumentation. The relative languidness also conveys a kind of lusty hopefulness for this literal dream partner and all that could be in your future together. This song features an extended instrumental section, which not only breaks up the pop chorus pattern of the album but intelligently illustrates that what the singer wants is inexpressible through simple words.
“Sunflower, Vol. 6” brings us back into sunny pop territory and includes a few sharply observant lines like “I don’t wanna make you feel bad/ But I’ve been trying hard not to talk to you” that illustrate the strange territory of forcing yourself apart from someone you recently loved. “Canyon Moon” acts as a mildly cathartic, optimistically resolved coda to the relationship arc of the album. The song features a distinct throwback sound to mid-to-late 60s California acoustic pop, and its mixture of vintage and modern is instantly appealing and endearing.
“Treat People with Kindness,” employing Styles’ frequent “catchphrase” with his fans, acts well as a song for the fans and the community they create around him. This song is a celebration of a different kind of love that can nourish you when a romantic love may have failed you. Styles sings, “maybe we can/Find a place to feel good/, And we can treat people with kindness,” backed up by handclaps and a gospel-lite choir that reflects the communal spirit of the track.
Fine Line ends with the titular track, a classic “epic” album closer. The song isn’t quite as epic as one might want, although its scope is fitting with the general breeziness of the album. Where “Golden” began the album with the acknowledgment that falling into love makes you feel great while simultaneously making you extremely vulnerable to pain, “Fine Line” finds Styles on the other side of that pain allowing that the experience is a part of life, unavoidable, and above all worth it. Love and hate, hope and pain, loss and gain are always separated by a fine line and accepting the fact that you’re always walking that line is necessary for living.
Fine Line offers a lot to think about if you want to dig into it. If you’re looking for sunny pop hits, it has those too. If it could have found a few better methods to meld the two, the album could have been great. As it is, it’s a fine, personal exploration of universal experiences through pop choruses and not quite enough stepping out of comfort zones.