Fine Line by Harry Styles, ranked
Written by ABR on 14/12/2021
There is no greater testament to the pulling power of Harry Styles than this: his sophomore album, Fine Line, is still doing numbers in the charts two years after its release. Currently sitting at 35 in the UK (that’s higher than Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa’s latest) and at 22 in the US, it’s not left the chart in the past 104 weeks on either side of the Atlantic. It was, of course, a record that dropped when Ms Rona was just a little virus on nobody’s mind, but it’s managed to sustain a lengthy presence thanks to its smart singles rollout (“Watermelon Sugar” had a chokehold on 2020) and the subsequent US tour Harry staged to support it.
With rumours that the Fine Line era is drawing to a close, with new music on the way in 2022, the time has come to reflect upon the album and pick out the bangers from the skips. Back when it dropped, we said that “the album feels like it was pieced together somewhere between the nocturnal pool parties and the bleary mid-morning magic mushroom trips of a 70s American Free Love commune” — have our thoughts on that framing changed? Well, from 12 to 1, here is Harry Styles’ Fine Line, ranked.
One of the few songs on Fine Line to get the single treatment, “Falling” feels designed to tug the heartstrings of the same crowd who stan Adele. It’s pretty and bruised, yes, and features a rare Big Harry Belt™ on the chorus, but this does feel like a pedestrian entry in the musical canon of a man capable of pushing greater boundaries. It could be a One Direction single, which makes it feel misplaced in the wooze and fever of the album as a whole.
11. Canyon Moon
Sandwiched in between two supreme Harry numbers — “Sunflower Vol 6” and “Treat People With Kindness” — is “Canyon Moon”, a track that you could probably forget about when you consider what surrounds it. Is it bad? No, there is literally no track on Fine Line that is bad, but this is a crisis situation, and some things have to go.
Props to Kid Harpoon for his production work on this: a big, swaying song about longing that sits at the album’s centre, built around a guitar section dreamt up by Harry’s go-to guitar guy Mitch Rowland while tripping on mushrooms. An ambitious track, sure, but there’s something about it that feels less gripping than the rest, and the six-minute runtime feels like our king in show-off mode. Make it three minutes, girlie! We’ve got bangers incoming!
9. To Be So Lonely
There’s a tenderness to “To Be So Lonely” that manifests differently elsewhere on Fine Line. Whereas the other ballads are cutting, there’s something sort of refreshingly pathetic about this. “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry,” Harry sings over a twee, soft guitar line. But beyond that, it does feel a bit like a song that goes in circles.
Hearkening back to the melancholy of his eponymous debut, the bittersweet unravelling of this — a stripped-back melodic concept reliant on direct lyrical ideas — is one of the record’s most touching ballads. The looped guitar chords are shot with bursts of shimmering cymbals and echoes of bass and vocals before it reaches its sore crescendo. And the audacity to use an ex’s voice over its outro? A sublimely produced and brutally honest folk-pop track.
7. Lights Up
Chosen as the rousing lead single, this one divided audiences when it first dropped, perhaps because it wasn’t as hookish as we were expecting it to be. But “Lights Up” gains real life when performed live. If any constraints of his 1D days were still tying him down, this sonic ode to freedom shook them off.
6. Treat People With Kindness
The song equivalent of being hit by a Coca Cola truck, “Treat People With Kindness” is the kind of rare saccharine goodness you allow yourself to succumb to, even if its message feels so aggressively upbeat. Built around Harry’s life mantra (that also adorns his merchandise and promo billboards), the song grates some and elates others; we’re firmly in the latter camp. See it live to witness the biggest burst of communal love since the 70s, when everyone was constantly stoned and snogging each other.
5. Watermelon Sugar
Ahh, the cunnilingus bop with serious chart staying power! When “Watermelon Sugar” got its music video in the early days of the pandemic, we collectively lost our shit: boys and girls frolicking on the beach with Harry, sinking their teeth into pink slices of the titular fruit. It felt like Harry’s real pop chart moment; a radio single that drenches you in a fructose fantasy, covert in its meaning enough to get the whole family singing it unaware of its true meaning. While we fell back into a world of disco pop and synth-shaped hip-hop on the charts, “Watermelon Sugar” stands out as a clever alt-rock track that crossed over.
4. Sunflower Vol. 6
Is there any greater feeling than being madly in love with someone, on the outside looking in, when everything feels light and fluttery? This winking, jangly 70s number is exactly that, a layered work of melodic mastery that feels completely unserious in a good way. From those cumulative cries of “toniiiight!” to the “bah-buh-boop” wails of its closing verse, this is pure euphoria that makes you want to fall head over heels in love with someone.
Those gentle brushes of the piano chords and a cymbal brew for mere seconds on “Golden” before the whole song implodes like a paint bomb. A combination of big dragged-out electric guitar motifs, scuzzy plucked strings, upbeat keys and a constant chorus behind it, it feels like everything the song suggests: new beginnings; first glances; the shot of adrenaline you get when you’ve first met someone you like. In fact, that is what makes “Golden” such an all-time-great Harry hit. It focuses not so much on what is said, but how the entire thing feels. A simple observation (“You’re so golden”) bottles a lifetime’s worth of emotion.
2. Fine Line
On his debut, Harry strayed from the pop realm into a place where he could be taken seriously. It manifested in the form of modest, intensely written folk songs. There was less flirting with emotional grandiosity. But the title track on this record, the closer that stretches out over six minutes, harbours all of the same lyrical intensity but on a larger sonic scale. It starts slow, a sullen acoustic ballad with whispered vocals, Harry ruminating on the idea of emotional balance — walking the fine line between happiness and melancholy as the song and album’s name describes. But it growls and grows, and elements bloom from it like flowers: horn sections, gigantic walls of percussion, as Harry’s voice remains at the centerpiece of a storm. But while much of “Fine Line” relies on melody over lyrical profundity, there’s something special about the way it ends: with a constant cry of “We’ll be alright”.
1. Adore You
There are maybe one or two perfectly made pop songs a year that capture our attention and hold us in their grip for months on end; think “drivers license” or “Don’t Start Now”. Well, Harry’s ultimate, both in 2020 and just in general, is the pristine “Adore You”, which manages to be both remarkably hookish, cleverly written and ambitiously produced. From its opening, which feels like diving into water, the whole track feels so unashamedly starry-eyed and urging, Harry’s voice curling and cooing his verses like he’s performing on his knees. A particular highlight is the guitar breakdown that cuts through the song’s second half. He’ll have a hard time topping this on album three.
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