Roundtable Discussion: A Review of Harry Styles’ ‘Fine Line’

Fine Line - Harry Styles

Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss the honesty and experimentation within Harry Styles’ second album Fine Line, an eclectic record full of excitement and wonder.

Featured here are writers Alicia Bugallo, Anthony Kozlowski, Bethan Harper, Erica Garcia, Josh Weiner, Maggie McHale, Nina Schaarschmidt, and Sara Santora.

Fine Line - Harry Styles

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What were your initial reactions to Fine Line as an album?

Alicia Bugallo: Following the release of the three singles, especially “Watermelon Sugar” and “Adore You”, I was expecting a hook laden album, with big choruses and funky parts. I was quite surprised to see that didn’t end up being the case. I do really like the album, but it has taken me a few listens to actually appreciate it, as it is more left field than I thought it would be. That being said, I think the overall less commercial sound is going to make Fine Line endure time, rather than be a collection of short-lived radio hits.

Nina Schaarschmidt: My initial reactions when I first heard the three in advanced released singles was very mixed. As a big fan of the musical style of his first solo album Sign of the Times, the singles seemed a lot more pop orientated than the last record was to me. I expected a record which is very different to the first album; I initially thought it would be a lot more commercial than the first record. Having listened to it now as a whole, and having understood its message and narrative, I can say that I really do like it.

Anthony Kozlowski: When “Lights Up” dropped, it didn’t get a lot of replay for me. It felt a lot like “Sign of the TImes” in that regard — high-minded and experimental, but not particularly fun. “Watermelon Sugar” and “Adore You” brought me around in a big way though, and the rest of the album only improved on their promise. Fine Line is a marked expansion from his self-titled debut. Whereas then he seemed to struggle in finding his voice (I could listen to a song and tell you exactly which classic rock artist he was aping), he wades into the deep end here. It isn’t a perfect record, but it’s his arrival as an artist with something of his own to say. He’s stepped out of the shadow of One Direction in a way that his former bandmates haven’t (save for maybe Niall Horan).

Erica Garcia: I sat down on the midnight it came out and played the album front to back and thoroughly enjoyed it. While I do think it was kind of a major jump between the raw sound of his debut record, this one felt a little more lighthearted, a little freer, and if it’s even possible, a little more Harry. Overall, Fine Line to me was as full of wonder as it was full of truth, and I truly appreciated Styles’ sonic approach to a sort of vintage, free-falling sound.

Sara Santora: I can honestly say I was completely impressed and amazed upon my first listen. All three of the albums singles, to me, showcased a more modern and contemporary sound for Harry, and so I was curious to see how he’d mix that with his love for 60s and 70s rock, or if he’d even do that at all. Fine Line is the perfect blend of new and old, and I think Harry did a terrific job stepping into his own and experimenting with so many different sounds.

Bethan Harper: For me, Fine Line immediately felt more honest than Styles’ debut. I enjoyed the first record, but this time around I feel as though we have learned a bit more about Harry the person rather than Harry Styles the brand. This album evoked a very emotive initial reaction for me because it feels so honest. These days, more and more albums are becoming rushed, unauthentic creations but ’Fine Line’ is quite the opposite. It is obvious that Styles took his time writing this album and poured his soul into it, which allowed me to fully connect with the music.

Maggie McHale: Fine Line instantly felt like the most authentic version of Harry Styles the artist and the person, as he maneuvered through his personal heartaches. Some albums are sometimes difficult to want to listen to all the way through without skipping or stopping; Fine Line is no such album. It is instantly palatable, allowing Styles to evoke his most redolent thoughts and feelings. Fine Line showcases all of the best and worst parts of life and love, as Styles recounts his own experiences with ease and ostensible ubiquity.

Josh Weiner: I’ve enjoyed One Direction’s hit singles as much as the next bloke, but I can’t say I know the Harry Styles catalogue top-to-bottom as well as some of the other writers in this roundtable. As a more casual listener, I can say that I enjoyed this record and was impressed to hear more of what Styles can achieve on his own, rather than as a single member of a larger quartet. Fine Line certainly featured plenty of stellar singing and refined pop-oriented production, which made a strong impression on me from the very first listen.

Stylistically, Fine Line is much different than Harry Styles’ self-titled debut. How do you feel Harry Styles has evolved as an artist?

Alicia: In my opinion, his self-titled debut album was always meant to be the first step towards something bigger. He had just been in one of the biggest boybands in the world, and was making completely different music. In my opinion, he needed time to develop his own voice; however, I think the flavour of Fine Line was already present in his first album. In terms of the overall creative, he’s taking it to the next level on Fine Line; it’s a holistic work of art rather, not just an album, and I would say that’s the main difference I’ve noticed.

Nina: I grew up around the rise of One Direction, which turned out to be one of the greatest boy bands in the world, it felt like beatlemania happened again. When they split, Harry dropped a record which was so not one direction. Full of autobiographical texts, experimental melodies and deep metaphors. To me, his first album felt like a piece of art, stepping away from the mainstream boyband image and creating something creative and individual, just for himself. Now, having dropped his second album, Styles has proved to the world that he is a creative individual that you can not put in a box. The record is influenced by pop, rock and also indie. This time, there was a lot more creative promotion behind the album, like creating the fictional island of “Eroda” which plays a role in the “Adore You” music video. He created a very creative and artistic narrative which flows through the album. To me, the first record was about the pure love to music and creativity and now, the second album is a pure work of art.

Anthony: Harry Styles is a lot like watching a home video of a toddler taking their first steps. It’s shaky and a little uncertain, but you can see the potential for growth. With Fine LIne, we’re seeing that start to come together. Before, he played straight homage to the greats (“Sweet Creature” wanted so badly to be “Blackbird” it was embarrassing), but here he’s blending his influences with his own penchant for anthemic pop bliss. The singles hit hard and fast in the first third of the album, but it’s the deep cuts where Harry shows his chops. “Cherry” is a weeping Bon Iver lament that makes a ramblin man out of the mop-headed youth. “She” sprawls out like Neil Young on a bender. “Sunflower, Vol 6” basks in the island sun without resorting to Jimmy Buffet pandering. All-in-all, the inspirations are less singular and more nuanced. Harry takes center stage, hoisted up by the classics that he tips his hat to.

Erica: With an unconventional path to stardom, from singing competition shows to the biggest boyband of the decade, Styles has had to evolve as an artist in a never-ending kind of spotlight, and I think that’s shaped not only his music but his songwriting especially. Coming into the world from the limelight of a boyband, then leaving that space, and stepping into a light of his own reflects his growth as an artist. While Styles did songwriting as part of the band, it wasn’t until his debut album that he dived into lyrics reflecting his most heartfelt and honest thoughts, and I think with this second record, he’s only getting better at that.

Sara: I have to start out and say the same thing Nina did — I was very much part of the One Direction generation. I was around 15 when they hit stardom, and at that time, I loved pop and of course loved everything One Direction did. They were very much the perfect boy band — very cookie cutter pop. When Harry released “Sign of the Times” I was almost shocked that this style was hiding away in the One Direction version of Harry I had come to know and love. That said, I think his first album was a way for him to assert that he comes from a very different musical background than what he was known for. For him, it was important to tell critics and fans that he was a huge fan of a certain era of rock and pop, and so, I think he made Harry Styles fit a new mold — a very cookie cutter classic rock album. Now that he has had success as his own musician and artist, I feel as though he had more room to play on this album. He was able to be a pop icon, play with catchy hooks and choruses, but also give us those groovy guitar breaks. I think he is more lyrically vulnerable and playful, and I feel him really shifting back and forth between his pop and rock identities. This, of course, is why I think this album works so well.

Bethan: I believe he’s allowed himself to be freer. Striking out alone after being in one of the biggest manufactured bands in the world and having the pressure of producing work that proves yourself as a credible artist must be an intimidating process. Therefore, the writing of his self-titled album was likely to be fraught with doubt, which impacted the outcome. The very first songs that artists write are seldom their finest work and people flourish over time – usually when no-one knows who they are. The difference in Harry’s case is that he was already so well known at the release of his debut that an album that other artists could put down to a learning curve, was too harshly scrutinised. By the sound of it, most of that pressure has dissipated, allowing Styles to be more stripped back and experimental.

Maggie: This album, as opposed to his self-titled debut two years ago, feels fully and truly like “Harry Styles,” and it seems as though Styles himself knows this too. Fine Line glides through its tracklist with dexterity, properly showcasing Styles’ inimitable talents through its variety of sounds. From the groovy guitar licks on “Adore You,” to the stripped-down “Cherry,” to the ’60s-inspired “Canyon Moon,” Fine Line enjoys itself as it deftly navigates these varying shifts. Styles has come into his own with this album, giving listeners the opportunity to really get to know who he is.

Josh: To be honest, I still haven’t listened to Harry Styles’ eponymous debut all the way through. I’m mainly familiar with him through his records with One Direction and his surprisingly stellar performance in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. But look– it takes a ton of talent for anybody to stay relevant in the pop culture landscape for the better part of the decade, and Styles certainly has exhibited just that on all of those aforementioned works. I’m just happy to see him shed his “boy band” image and prove that he can craft a compelling solo record with Fine Line.

What is your favorite song on the record?

Alicia: It has to be “Adore You”. I love the funkiness of it: the floaty synths, the choppy guitar, the melodic bassline, the BVs reminiscent of disco music. The chorus is also so good, such a brilliant hook. It got stuck in my head after the first listen.

Nina: To me, it is “Cherry”. It’s a breakup song about missing someone you’ve broken up with and how much it hurts seeing them moving on when you simply can’t. Also it has the voice of his ex-girlfriend in it, which makes it all a lot more pure and rare.

Anthony: This will probably change the deeper I dive, but “Cherry” stole my heart. Its folk sincerity seems out of place on a major pop record, especially with the more traditional “Falling” on its heels. “Cherry” marks the moment that Harry steps away from the shallows though. He seems uninterested in playing to expectations, throwing mourning hints of harmonica over plucking mandolin. He grasps possessively at a love that’s long gone, trying to preserve the last hints of joy he remembers, but the resentment buries him. The thunderous clash at the end washes it all away like waves on the shoreline. It’s a left turn into uncharted territory, but the journey onward is incredibly rewarding.

Erica: My favorite song right now is “Canyon Moon.” Just like the rest of the world, I’ve only lived with Fine Line for about a week now, but from the first listen, “Canyon Moon” was my favorite. I love the acoustic guitar sound and the carefree vibe that the song carries. I love the sorrow that’s laced into the lyrics as it creates story. It reminds me a lot of a Fleetwood Mac or Eagles kind of sound, and how I might love it for the same reason that I love most of Fleetwood Mac’s more upbeat songs too. It might sound simple, but it’s laced with a lot of imagery and that’s always my favorite part about hearing a song.

Sara: For me, “Cherry” stands out from the pack. He is so lyrically open and honest on this track, dealing with love lost. But the folk sound, mixed with a big horn moment near the end, helps to make this different than any other typical break up song I’ve ever heard. The choice to include a voice recording from his ex-girlfriend at the end of the track also cemented it as so real and so sweet. I somehow felt very attached to the couple and the story, though I know nothing about the relationship, other than what is told to us.

Bethan: I adore “Canyon Moon.” The folksy guitar riffs, soft drums and loving lyrics are so endearing. The track is almost like a time machine that transports you directly back to the great folk music of the 70s. Whilst much of Harry’s criticism surrounds his likeness to many of the greats of the 60s, 70s and 80s, I think this track proves he is an authentic old soul who adores music of the past.

Maggie: “Lights Up” was my most-played song of 2019 even though it was just released as a single only two months ago, so that feels the most fitting to define as my “favorite.” The song grooves ever-so-gently before swelling into its grandiose chorus, and as a whole it just rings out as pure pop perfection. The entire album has such a plethora of good tracks, however, and it would be a sin not to acknowledge the other gems the record holds – “Adore You,” “Cherry,” “Canyon Moon” – these all hold magic in their own rights, too.

Josh: “Golden” and “Watermelon Sugar,” the first two tracks on the album, were both very lively and allowed me to slide into the rest of the record with ease. “Cherry” was also a highlight for sure, and my inner Francophile was happy to hear the song’s giddy French-language outro by model Camille Rowe. It looks like others disagreed with me on this, but I did enjoy “Treat People With Kindness” and was moved by its altruistic message– even though I definitely believe Styles when he says he was on psychedelic mushrooms when recording this part of the album.

What are your least favorite moments on the record?

Nina: The album as a whole clicks very well together, but the song I prefer least is “Watermelon Sugar”. It is very poppy, and I am not a fan of the lyrics. Even though it is not my preferred taste, I still think it is a very good commercial song.

Anthony: “Treat People with Kindness” screeches like nails on a chalkboard in an otherwise solid record. Its peppy facsimile of 60’s pop is almost unbearable. The backup vocals beat the mantra over and over, making it feel interminable. Imagine the theme song to a Monkees ripoff show that was cancelled after a single season and you come close to this little hiccup. This may sound a bit harsh, but I think that speaks to the strength of the rest of the album. In a less worthy record, “Treat People with Kindness” would probably blend into the scenery. Here, it’s an eyesore.

Erica: I don’t think there’s a song on the record that I don’t like. I think Fine Line is an album I could play the whole way through and there isn’t one that I would ever skip over, but if I had to point something out, it would be that the song, “Treat People With Kindness” kind of hangs out on its own compared to the sound and feel of the rest of the record. It’s been wonderful watching Styles use the phrase as his motto and mantra, and I love the old school 60s sound it reflects. I adore the song’s message and the energy it will undoubtedly bring to the live stage, but it seems like it could have been a single on its own!

Sara: Sadly, “Treat People With Kindness” was my least favorite moment on the record. I know this is partially due to the fact that this has been his tagline since branching out as a solo artist, so I had such high expectations. To me, this song is the musical equivalent to an after school special. And I really hate to say that, but I think this song is so below everything Harry is capable of as a musician, and I was hoping for something more sonically sweeping like Fine Line. I do think it will be a fun moment in the live show, but listening to it in the car or on a walk is a bit difficult for me.

Bethan: ’Fine Line’ is actually my least favourite song on the record. I do feel as though it ties the album together nicely as the final track and I can appreciate its heartfelt lyrics, although musically I find ’Fine Line’ too repetitive and uninspiring.

Maggie: “Treat People With Kindness” was definitely the lowest point of the album. It felt too kitschy and forced even though the sentiment itself is genuine, and just felt awkward and misplaced from the rest of the record. It felt like Styles was just trying to lighten the mood from some of the forerunning tracks, but it easily could have been done without.

Josh: Some of the songs in the middle slowed the pace of the record a bit, but there’s not room for that much filler in the space of just 46 minutes, and Harry Styles managed to avoid it on this impressively well-tailored album.

Harry Styles © Tim Walker
Harry Styles © Tim Walker

How successful do you think Harry Styles is in wandering off the beaten path with a more eclectic assortment of sounds than his debut?

Alicia: Pretty successful I would say! The facts speak for themselves. He’s gained support from well established music publications despite being from a boy band, which is usually frowned upon by tastemakers in the industry. I think to debunk people’s preconceived opinions he needed to make a strong statement with just his music, and I thoroughly believe he did. He explored, experimented, got immersed in different genres and proved his commitment to art.

Nina: Harry Styles has one of the world’s largest fanbases which are very loyal, which gives him the huge privilege to be as creative and experimental with his music as he wants to. A lot of people are a fan of his artistic personality and those also appreciate his way of experimenting with sounds. Also, the marketing and promotion this time was way bigger than the last time, which has helped the album’s success a lot. In total, I do not think that he is wandering off, he is simply showing that you can’t put him into a single genre.

Anthony: Judging from the number of times I hit repeat over the past week, I’d say he’s been pretty successful in that regard. Fine Line boasts such an assortment of sounds, most of which succeed in their intent (sorry “Treat People with Kindness”), that it lassos my attention from start to finish. As the music industry moves further and further into a single-based model, it’s refreshing to see a young artist put out such an eclectic and cohesive piece of longform art. As much variety as it has though, it never feels scattershot. He moves from one idea to the next with grace and flair.

Erica: I think it’s a great thing that he’s experimenting so much with sound. Five years in a boyband, and not a single one of them ever really got a chance to explore their individual artistry. If there’s a time for Styles to be doing it, I think it’s now. Fine Line just proves that he knows how to take influence and make it his own. Whether it’s more of an 80’s pop vibe or a more folky Joni Mitchell kind of style, there’s something always latched to the song that makes it a Harry Styles Song.

Sara: He’s undoubtedly been successful. I agree with Nina — his fanbase is huge and loyal, so, at least for now, he will be successful in anything he does. But, I do think that branching out and playing with every genre he’s drawn to has helped him grow his fanbase. I know so many people who were so against him because he’s an ex-boy band member, that have become very drawn to him as an artist because of this album. It’s mature and fun and appeals to people of all musical backgrounds … how could it not work?

Bethan: I would say he is very successful in doing so! You can tell that Harry has not held back with experimentation on ’Fine Line’ – and to great success. This is likely the first opportunity that Styles has had to properly wander off that beaten path and he has grasped the opportunity with both hands and sprinted.

Maggie: He has most definitely been successful in creating a more eclectic sound on Fine Line, and he seems to be having way more fun with this, too. Instead of feeling like he has to conform to a particular genre or ideal – like he had previously with One Direction, and even minorly on his self-titled solo album – he instead can experiment with his interests and explore different sonic routes. Fine Line is a beautiful representation and culmination of Styles’ varying influences melding together, and it absolutely works.

Josh: So far, so good, I’d say. He seems to be going a similar route as Justin Timberlake in the sense that he got off to a fine start as a teenage rock star but then managed to invent a new sound for himself as an adult pop singer once it came time to move on to that phase of his career in music.

Harry Styles’ music tends to echo something of a classic rock sound. How do you think this sets him and his music apart in 2019?

Nina: Yes, Sign of the Times was way more inspired by classic rock than Fine Line. I do not think that it sets him and his music apart, as he is very diverse when it comes to genres. When he was part of a group, he only did pop, when he started as a solo artist, it was very influenced by rock and now it simply is a mix of both, plus more modern electronic sounds. All these phases personally and musically are a part of him, so nothing seems to be set apart for me.

Anthony: Top 40 radio in 2019 seems to be allergic to guitars. The top “rock” songs of the year came courtesy of Panic! At the Disco and Imagine Dragons, and everything else floundered at the fringes of pop consciousness. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but Styles seems content to wade in the waters of a long-gone age. The sounds he flirts with haven’t been in vogue for decades, but to his credit, he smartly morphs them for more modern sensibilities.

Erica: Styles has had a loyal fanbase for years, and it’s obvious they’re not disappearing any time soon. What I love the most about him drawing from classic rock inspiration and putting it into his own music is that he’s bringing the sound back for a generation of fans who may never have heard what The Beatles or George Michael sounded like, but they’re getting tastes of it through Styles – that’s what sets him apart in a 2019 centered around radio fame. It makes his music a lot more unique and meaningful to me.

Sara: I agree with Erica wholeheartedly in that he is introducing an entire generation to a genre that our grandparents and parents grew up with, just with a more contemporary twist. I think he’ll turn many young people on to listening to more classic rock, and bringing those roots back into the current landscape.

Bethan: The vast majority of today’s guitar music is heavily influenced by classic rock – that’s how music evolves. The difference with Harry is that he really is an old soul and changing or adapting his stylistic choices just to match modern trends doesn’t seem to be an option. Classic rock was born out of complete musical mastery but now the music landscape is inundated by the celebrity culture. Styles has resurrected classic sounds and infused them with fresh, modern pop flares to deliver classic sounding, unadulterated music. That’s what sets Harry Styles apart.

Maggie: Harry Styles’ music is definitely influenced by classic rock, and that is not something that he hasn’t mentioned in the past. Yet, while it certainly “echoes” this genre (is classic rock even a genre, or just a type of radio station?), Styles has still masterfully made himself wholly modern, attracting listeners through his undeniable musical abilities that transcend any concept of time. He sets himself apart insofar as he is able to blend together the past and present, uniquely curating a sound that is palatable across the board. His sound echoes classic rock the same way that his appearance echoes young Mick Jagger – an understandable and apt description, but not at all a defining signature.

Josh: It’s clear enough that Harry Styles is the latest in a long line of British rock stars who emerged in their youth and kept rocking into their early adulthood (the former guests of the Ed Sullivan Show being the most obvious examples of this trend). Styles may well be aware of these influences, but he’s also able to make 21st century-appropriate music that is a product of his own times and environment, not simply emulating the great musicians of yesteryear. Being able to stay true to his own craft while also making occasional nods to his forerunners gives Styles a distinct identity within the 2019 pop landscape.

Fine Line’s sound is a bit of a dark horse as far as modern pop music is concerned. Do you think it could spark a resurgence in guitar-based music, or do you think its popularity is more a product of Harry Styles being Harry Styles? Do you think Styles has the potential to shift the pop music landscape in general? 

Alicia: I actually don’t think the popularity of the record is astonishing, considering he was in one of the biggest boy bands in the world, and already had a very successful music career before becoming a solo artist. Although some singles are getting radio plays and appealing to the general public, I don’t think the record will be big enough to change the pop music landscape. In my opinion, there will be two main audiences for it: the loyal Harry Styles fans, who support him unconditionally, and a more niche audience that he has just started tapping into. I don’t think it is a record for the big masses.

Nina: Harry Styles, due to his musical history will always be privileged with a loyal worldwide fanbase as he is one of the greatest male artists alive. To me, the first three released singles have a very mainstream pop sound which is indeed unusual. In my personal feeling, a lot of young people especially, really like unusual pop. For example Billie Eilish’s last album was very unusual for pop, but her song bad guy turned out to be the hit of the year. I simply think that the emerging trend goes into more experimental forms and variations of pop music. Styles simply has the feeling to catch up these vibes and transform them into a song people will love.

Erica: As someone who has been a fan of Styles since the One Direction days, his influence as a pop culture icon is undeniable. When it comes to the music world, however, I have only just begun to start seeing other artists take note of what’s he’s doing with Fine Line‘s release. Many artists in country music are appreciating more of the folk, acoustic sound. A lot of pop producers have said they enjoyed the singles, “Lights Up,” and “Adore You.” I would love it if we could have guitar-based music back into modern pop, however, I’ve noticed that it takes a little bit longer for people outside a Styles fan base to pay attention to someone whose roots stem from a boyband. While it might take longer for people to listen, he’s got plenty of fans on his side in the meantime.

Sara: You know, as much as I would love to see pop shift, I do not know if Harry Styles’ music will change the current trajectory of pop music. While people undoubtedly love what he is doing, I think he’s one of those unique cases where everyone loves classic rock  when he does it, but the second someone else tries it could fall flat. I am not saying that other pop artists aren’t capable of creating a classic rock album, but because this love for classic rock and rockstar look is so ingrained in Harry’s identity, it works. I couldn’t see Camilla Cabello or even Niall Horan doing what Harry has done, because it’s simply not them. And, no matter what, people are always going to want the feel-good, standard pop hits. I do think he has opened the door for other unknown rock artists to reach some success, but I can’t see this change happening on the radio.

Bethan: It is undeniable that as a result of One Direction Harry has a ready-made and fiercely loyal fanbase. Although, at this point in his solo career it is becoming obvious that even those who doubted his credibility have been won over. Perhaps his fame did give his solo endeavours an initial leg-up but Harry has propelled his career by creating undeniably listenable music. In terms of shifting the pop music landscape, I think it was already shifting. Genre is becoming less relevant and people are experimenting more and more. Harry is certainly in the first wave of genre non-conforming artists in the mainstream who are changing the landscape but I don’t think he is pioneering the movement.

Maggie: There already has been a resurgence in guitar-based pop music, though not quite on Harry Styles-level scale. This is nothing new, which I think helps the album to fall more easily into the modern pop category. Sure, the album’s explosive debut definitely has something to do with Harry Styles being Harry Styles, but it can also stand firmly on its own legs. The musical landscape is already in flux, and has been shifting for years, so whether or not Styles has any seismic effect on this is difficult to say. Maybe he could aid in being a catalyst, but to definitively call him out for being the one who makes this change would be unfair to the slew of other artists who have already been contributing to the shift of modern music.

Josh: Is guitar-based music really at risk? We’re just wrapping up a year in which by far the biggest hit single featured Billy Ray Cyrus playing his brand new guitar and bragging about how much money he’d spent on it, after all. But regardless, if you’re concerned about guitar music maintaining its mainstream status, I suppose it can’t hurt to have one of the most famous singers in the world fully embracing this instrument on his latest record.

According to a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year, Styles meditated on the following David Bowie quote for inspiration in writing his new album: “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” How do you see this playing out in the final product?

Nina: He did go deeper into the water this time, by creating something more artistic and creative than he ever did. He tried out new genres and techniques and invented himself in a new way. Fine Line is so different to all the stuff that he has released before, which makes it feel unique and exciting, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.

Erica: This record is laced with everything from electric slides to mandolins. I feel like Styles has done everything with his sound that he possibly could. He’s revealed that when he feels unsure about his creativity, he turns to his bandmates and co-creatives for inspiration, so if there was ever a moment in the record-making process where he felt like he was afraid to drown in water, it’s the team and the band surrounding him who has made sure he’d be able to float. Collectively, they’ve proven that Fine Line is a product of experimentation, wonder, excitement, and honesty rolled into one eclectic album.

Sara: He did so much with this record, and I feel as though he truly allowed himself to play into every identity and stereotype attached to him. By doing that, he created something uniquely beautiful.

Bethan: There is an evident emotional depth within Harry Styles. Whilst his self-titled debut had some strong musical moments, it only scratched the surface and didn’t show too much of Harry’s depth. The debut album obviously fell in a spot where Styles felt safe from the harsh glare of those wishing him to fail. ’Fine Line’ is clearly a good few steps deeper into the water and rests in a place where Styles feels both excited and scared. From folk bops and unabashed pop to genius rock and roll, ’Fine Line’ is a beautifully eclectic – yet still cohesive – album. Still, I think Styles could take an extra step or two into the water, but I in time I believe he will.

Maggie: Harry Styles contains a depth that is admirable as an artist. Fine Line showcases his personal depth through its ability to push the artist’s limits just ever-so-slightly further, with the final product feeling like a beautiful culmination of Styles’ personal and professional growth over the last few years. Considering how he made his big break as a monolithic popstar in a monolithic pop group, and that break happening only within this past decade, seeing the way he has shifted and grown into his own truly is exciting. Styles had to break old molds and jump into the unknown, and this pays off tenfold.

Josh: In terms of making a record that sounds different from what he’s made before, Harry Styles has indeed honored his idol Bowie’s advice. I wasn’t often reminded of the One Direction songs I knew best while listening to Fine Line, but I sure was repeatedly impressed by Styles’ strong command of his music as he sought to create a new identity for himself on his latest release.

Harry Styles © Helene Pambrun
Harry Styles © Helene Pambrun

What, if anything, do you feel Harry Styles has accomplished in Fine Line? Where does this album fall in the pop music canon of 2019?

Nina: He accomplished a lot more respect from a lot more people I think, and people finally start seeing the individual “Harry Styles” and stop seeing “The guy who used to be in One Direction.” This album is a very experimental pop album; it reminded me of the way that Billie Eilish experiments with pop. I would place him somewhere between classic pop and experimental Billie Eilish style. Anyway, it is very clear that he does not want to be placed in a genre as his style is a genre by itself.

Anthony: If anything, Harry might encourage kids to close ProTools and pick up a guitar. Not to be that “music was better when I was a kid” dude with his Metallica t-shirt and skepticism of anything recorded after 1999. Pop music could use a little spark though. As someone who thrives on variety of sound, I believe anything that encourages exploration is a healthy move for the pop landscape. Fine Line is a push in that direction.

Erica: With Fine Line, I feel like Harry Styles has accomplished being his most truthful self in music – something that might have taken him a years-long career path to get to, but also something that so many fans and supporters are excited and grateful to see. When it comes to the pop music canon, I’m not exactly sure where this might fall. I don’t think it actually does, but what I do know is that artists being their most real selves in their music is something that’s becoming unquestionably popular.

Bethan: There are a few things that Harry Styles has accomplished with ’Fine Line’. Firstly, proving that he is an authentic and credible artist with a real grasp on the human condition and music mastery. Secondly, that young people and teenagers are not musically uncultured. Many discredit the musical pallet of teenagers as if they are only interested in soulless, consumerist pop and that’s just not the case. Harry’s fanbase, which is primarily made up of young women and girls, have a true appreciation of his experimental approach and rejection of heavily manufactured celebrity culture. Finally, Harry has proved that you don’t need to fall neatly within the pop canon to find success. It’s hard to fit Styles into any single box and for that I commend him. The musical landscape is becoming more ambiguous and he happily embraces that change to the delight of his fans.

Maggie: Harry Styles accomplished what so many teen pop stars hope to achieve as they mature into adulthood: shedding their clean-cut, bubblegum image without much scandal, and ultimately creating music that is intelligent, inspired, personal, and palatable. Fine Line represents the 2019 ethos perfectly, breaking free from social norms and carving out a unique space for itself. In the musical canon of the year, Fine Line feels like the perfect sonic summation for an eclectic year in music.

Josh: We’ll see how influential this record winds up being in the long run. For now, I’ll just say that Harry Styles has pulled off a strong sophomore effort, thereby proving he’s not a one-album wonder and can properly function as a solo singer. I’ll look forward to seeing what he achieves in the studio next.

What would you like to see Harry Styles try next in future projects?

Alicia: I would like him to keep on experimenting. However, I’d be very happy to hear him embracing a poppier sound in his own way. I do like a good hook, but I also like to be surprised.

Nina: As I was so impressed by the creative promotion of his album and its musical style, I would love him to keep surprising the world. Wherever he will go in the future, I can promise it won’t be boring.

Anthony: I hope that Harry continues to challenge the notion of pop music. Bursting out of One Direction, he presented himself as a student of classic rock, but he was smart not to take the Greta Van Fleet route of homage. I want to see him play with scene changes the way he does in the title track, blooming from quiet introspection into triumphant fanfare. I want to see experimental flavor like in “Sunflower, Vol. 6” and “Cherry.” And I want to see him indulge a little like in “She.” He’s already on the right track.

Erica: On Styles’ first record, there was a song called “Kiwi” – a loud, hard rock tune based off big guitars, bold drums, and daring lyrics – not to mention Styles singing full force. I love the style of this new album and the simultaneously mellow yet dark energy it radiates, but I would love to see him experiment more with this kind of hard rock sound. Styles is a legendary performer on stage, and I think to see him play off that kind of sound more would be awesome.

Sara: I hope Styles continues to be honest and I hope he keeps pushing the boundaries. Fine Line was a huge leap for Styles, and I want to see this honesty and experimentation stay at the core of everything he does.

Bethan: I want to see something I never expected. If I could correctly predict the sound of his next record I would be disappointed. With some artists, I want to feel comfortable to the point that I know what moves they will make next and that I will like their future work. For me, the appeal of Styles is that I don’t know what he’ll do or even whether I’ll like it – that’s what makes him so interesting. I would rather Harry Styles create an album that I don’t particularly like than one I expected. However, what I want to see most from Styles is for him to continue being unashamedly himself.

Maggie: Experimentation, experimentation, experimentation. If there is one thing that we have learned from Harry Styles, it is that he does not want to be one who conforms to any one specific thing, nor should he. Fine Line grew from the self-titled, the self-titled grew from One Direction; hopefully whatever comes next will continue to grow and evolve in its sonic intricacies as well. Harry Styles showed us in Fine Line that he isn’t afraid to be purely himself, but also that “himself” is constantly changing. And what else signifies the future best, than change?

Josh: Not sure what sort of original answer I can give at this point, but now that Harry Styles is less than two years removed from completing a full decade of pop music prominence, I hope he fills the final stretch of that milestone with more engaging and inventive music of the sort we heard plenty of on Fine Line.

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:: stream/download Fine Line here ::

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Fine Line

an album by Harry Styles

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