Music Talks: 'Fine Line' by Harry Styles
“Music Talks” is a series where Daily Music Writers give their takes on the biggest releases in new music. From picking best and worst tracks to asking what makes a record tick, the Music beat is here to give praise and give shit to music worth talking about.
On Oct. 11, when Harry Styles dropped “Lights Up,” his first single in almost two years, the pop music sphere exploded in anticipation of Fine Line. Styles told Rolling Stone the album was about “having sex and feeling sad.” Well, all the 12–14 year-old One Direction fans that were stanning Harry Styles in 2012 are all grown up. That demographic is all about having sex and feeling sad now — or at least joking about those things on Twitter — so the subject matter couldn’t be more perfect. Tack that on to all Styles’ talk of taking psychedelics during the recording process, and this record is a recipe for late-Millennial/early-Gen-Z euphoria. But does it live up to the hype? The Music beat broke it down.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dylan Yono, Daily Arts Writer: OK, let’s start with the basics. What did you think of the album? Is it better than his debut?
Clara Scott, Daily Arts Writer: I was a big fan of the album. A lot of people have very lackluster sophomore albums — you spend your entire life working on your first album and you come up with the second in three years — but this one is really amazing. I would argue that it’s better than his debut, the variety in this album is impressive. He did so much more than the sad-boy rock thing he did on his first album.
Sam Cantie, Daily Music Editor: I’m gonna have to disagree with Clara Scott over here. I thought that this was not even close to as good as his first. His lyrics got cheesy and simplified, it felt a little bit like I was reading some Hallmark cards. And he can do that because he’s Harry Styles and he’s creating more of a persona on this album than focusing on the music itself.
Jim Wilson, Daily Arts Writer: Yeah, I think it was kinda like a 46-minute car commercial soundtrack. I thought I was gonna like it but it didn’t quite come through.
Katie Beekman, Daily Arts Writer: Wow, I’m more on Clara’s side here. I liked the first half a lot, but the second half fell kinda flat for me. In his Zane Lowe interview, he talked about taking more risks on this album and that really came through in terms of genre blending and having big moments, so I was impressed.
Jonah Mendelson, Senior Arts Editor: I agree with Katie that the first half was better than the second half. I thought it was really enjoyable, and I liked the singles, and “Golden” was really successful. But I think the whole thing was kinda inconsequential. A lot of the risks he took — I’m borrowing a phrase from John Lennon here — it’s like fancy wrapping around an empty box.
Best and worst track?
Scott: My favorite is hands down “Lights Up.” It’s so good. It was the best first single he could’ve released. I agree with Katie and Jonah that the singles on the first half of the album are the best here. Especially “Lights Up” because it’s so atmospheric and beautiful and it doesn’t have a traditional song structure which I really appreciate.
Cantie: I’m gonna say worst track is “Treat People With Kindness,” and I know it’s kind of villainy of me to say —
Wilson: I didn’t even get that far, I got to track 10 and was like, skip.
Cantie: — what I was saying earlier about the Hallmark-card writing was most apparent on “Treat People With Kindness.” I’d say my favorite track is “Adore You,” because to bounce off what Jonah was saying, it feels like the fanciest wrapping paper. The singles are the best, but Harry put out this kind of sugary, pink-and-blue candy vibe with them and then kinda left those colors there with the singles and didn’t follow through on the aesthetic for the whole album.
Wilson: Least favorite track is definitely “Watermelon Sugar.” That song was dumb. My favorite was “To Be So Lonely,” the only song I listened to twice.
Beekman: I get what Sam was saying about the colorful singles and then it kind of fading in the second half. In terms of tracks, I feel like others might disagree with me but I really liked “Cherry,” and least favorite is definitely “Canyon Moon.” There was just nothing there for me.
Mendelson: My favorite is probably “Golden.” He’s most successful with what he’s aiming for on that track. And “She” is his most successful foray into a different style. I didn’t really like that stretch from “Cherry” to “To Be So Lonely.”
In terms of themes, inspirations and styles (no pun intended), this album is all over the place. Other than Harry Styles, what strings this album together?
Nothing is an acceptable answer.
Wilson: That’s what I was gonna say. There’s no cohesion.
Scott: I agree with Sam that he’s trying to put together an image that doesn’t necessarily translate into solid music. I like the music, but the more I think about it, it doesn’t connect with Harry Styles’s image in the way that he wants to build it. Where it’s very cinematic, but there might not be anything behind the curtain.
As a follow-up to the last question: Styles dabbles in folk, soul, funk, psychedelic rock and of course, pop. Which of those genres does he do worst?
Mendelson: I think his soul attempts are the worst. Especially when he’s just like, gospel choir. It’s just not good.
Scott: It’s just kinda like, “play that funky music white boy.”
Cantie: Yeah, and there are lyrics that express how bad that is too, I wrote this down: When he says in “Cherry,” “I miss your accent / I miss your friends,” that was just like —
Wilson: Might be the wackest thing ever.
Cantie: — yeah, that was wack to me.
Scott: I kind of disagree, I think his folk attempts are the worst —
Mendelson: Yeah, his folk attempts are bad.
Scott: — I feel like in his attempts at soul he’s clearly putting in effort to pull it off, but he seems to think folk is just like, a guy and a guitar. That’s part of it, but you also have to have a certain amount of grit and understanding of the genre. Especially on “Canyon Moon” where it’s just like, dude, you’re not Neil Young, can you chill out?
Beekman: Whatever he’s doing on “Canyon Moon” and “Treat People With Kindness,” that’s where I say “no, please stop doing that, we’re good.”
Mendelson: Bad lyrics really shine through on folk songs too.
Scott: I agree, you don’t have anything to hide it like you do on heavily produced songs.
Which genre does he do best? Which would you want to see him lean into on the next record?
Scott: It’s no secret that his pop songs are his best songs.
Cantie: That’s why I like “Adore You” so much, that’s what he’s best at.
Mendelson: In terms of exploring his influences, he’s best when he’s building off that ’70s-soft-rock-Fleetwood-Mac sound. There’s a lot of potential for future growth there.
Cantie: On Twitter when you see pictures of him with Stevie Nicks, that grabs people a lot, it plays into his persona. I think he wants that image to come through most.
Wilson: He’s no Stevie Nicks.
Scott: It’s in the blending of pop and rock that a lot of ’70s outfits did that he’s best at. You can call it soft rock, pop rock, whatever, I think he brings a greater sensibility to pop music and that makes him so alluring. But when he strays too far into bubblegum pop or too gritty hard rock, it gets kind of weird. He has a happy medium with a sound that bands like Fleetwood Mac did successfully.
Let’s revisit the question about his debut — first, who didn’t listen to it?
Mendelson: I didn’t.
Wilson: Me neither.
OK, everyone else, can we dive more into Harry Styles vs. Fine Line?
Cantie: On his self-titled debut, he painted so much imagery for me, like “Meet Me In The Hallway,” when I listen to that, I can imagine being in the hallway.
Cantie: Seriously, that and “Sweet Creature” painted an image for me. But that imagery was lost on Fine Line.
Beekman: I think in taking the risks he took on this, there were some losses. It’s obvious he really had a mood he was aiming for on his debut. He was being careful, he wanted to be taken seriously. That gave him some gains in songs like “Meet Me In The Hallway,” but I don’t know if I like one or the other better. Different risks and different payoffs.
What are your thoughts on break-up albums? Does Styles’s break-up make Fine Line better or worse?
Mendelson: I didn’t even realize it was a break-up album. I thought it was just generic lines about love and life and stuff.
For context, he went through a break-up with his girlfriend of a year. She’s the girl speaking French at the end of “Cherry.”
Scott: I didn’t think this was a breakup album.
Scott: I think he maintains the same vibe as on his first album where he’s like, “I’m a sad pretty boy, listen to me —”
Scott: Which is fun, I like that. I guess some of the songs are break-up-y, but it sounds more like he’s just nostalgic.
Mendelson: I agree with that. I would never have guessed this was about a break-up if you hadn’t told me.
Huh. Maybe my interpretation was wrong. OK, moving on. How do you feel about the relationship between recreational drugs and the creative process? Is it obvious to you that Harry is high out of his mind on this album?
Mendelson & Scott: No.
Mendelson: It doesn’t sound interesting enough for me to think this was a product of being on drugs.
Wilson: It sounded pretty school-boy to me.
Cantie: Maybe on “Treat People With Kindness,” but that’s about it.
Scott: I bet whatever he came in with from those druggy experiences, the record execs were like, “No!”
Scott: It happened with Kacey Musgraves’s album, she wanted it to be a lot more psychedelic but it didn’t end up that way.
Any final words or last thoughts on Fine Line?
Scott: My final thought is that it’s good music, but the wrong artist.
Wilson: Who would’ve done it better?
Scott: Someone with more experience in rock music.
Mendelson: It’s pleasant music, enjoyable to listen to, well crafted — but if it wasn’t Harry Styles who released it, it wouldn’t get the kind of attention it’s getting.
Wilson: Like I said, it’s like a 46-minute Volkswagen commercial. Do you know what I mean?
Cantie: What? Explain that.
Wilson: Someone play the first song.
Cantie: (starts playing “Golden” from her laptop)
Beekman: OK, this is kind of a car commercial song.
Wilson: Does that not sound like it? … Or like a timeshare commercial?
Cantie: To bounce off of Jonah’s final thoughts, he does have a sweet spot of taking a very cheesy thing and making it kinda cool, and I agree it’s more because of his persona than his music.
Beekman: He definitely has this … I’m hesitant to say this, but he has that Elvis vibe, where he’s kind of balancing masculinity and femininity in a way that’s very appealing to a lot of people, and in that way he’s able to be a lot of things at once. Even if you don’t like it, it’s really interesting. I think he’ll be around for a while.