Review: Harry Styles ‘Fine Line’

Words by Riley Fitzgerald
Graphic by Press

Both Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood like to refer to Harry Styles as “the son they never had.” Nicks praises Styles’ latest album as an incredible rock ‘n’ roll record. One, she believes, is right out of 1975.

And, after hearing all this, you might just be rooting for him too. Sure, he started his career in a wildly popular Boy Band, One Direction. But now, now Styles is moving on.

Like the Beatles so many years ago, Styles is no longer content being target practice for screaming teens. Instead, he now uses the position fame and celebrity affords him to call the shots. While he hasn’t exactly taken the headlong plunge into boundary-pushing sophistication, Styles has flaunted pop convention without losing his massive audience.

This makes Styles more of an interesting proposition than other safe-as-milk contemporaries. In a sense, he is worthy of Buzzfeed’s epithet of The Savviest Man in Pop. But does he really live up to the mantle Rolling Stone has placed upon him – that of a Rock God?

His latest album Fine Line arrives with a cover shot through a fisheye lens in the same style as the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. One of its leading singles ‘Watermelon Sugar’ namechecks rock poet Richard Brautigan. Yes, yes, he knows rock history, all very clever.

Styles is happy to take any credit that comes his way for being a rock ‘n’ roller. And again, within the world of pop it’s remarkable he’s pulled any of it off at all. But compare his most heart laid bare material to Tame Impala’s ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’ and one wonders if Styles has ever really put himself under the microscope.

In a recent interview, Styles recalled how Stevie Nicks gave him an important piece of advice: “Just go with your gut, do what you want to do.” Fine Line is an album where he’s done exactly that. To call him inauthentic would be stumbling into one of popular music’s greatest quagmires. (Elvis worked with songwriters and he set the world on fire.) While Styles doesn’t write all of his own songs, he is in charge of directing his own image and creative trajectory. What is it then that keeps his latest album from succeeding on rock’s terms?

It’s this. Pop simply has too much of a claim on him. In pop’s eyes he’s a retro rocker but in rock’s his feet are barely touching the water. If rock is an attitude more than a sound, it isn’t one Styles is given to. He’s too content as pop’s playboy. And more than anything else, he stands out as one of the finest examples of how pop, like capitalism, has a funny way of ultimately absorbing that which seeks to destroy it.

It’s remarkable how much Styles can get away with within his arena, and that Fine Line is, when it comes down to it, an enjoyable pop record. Tracks like ‘She’ are enjoyable and Side B ventures into some serious quirk with its Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night meets One Direction meets the 5th Dimension confabulation ‘Treat People with Kindness.’ But when all is said and done, when it comes to the prospect of Styles stealing himself away and dredging out his innermost thoughts and feelings, figuring out just exactly who he is in this world and how it is he really feels and then coming back to the world with something which leads his audience someplace rather than simply keeping them entertained, he’d rather be at the party.

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