It is impossible to truly separate yourself from what made you a star. Like Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, or Justin Timberlake and NSYNC, One Direction will forever be a part of Harry Styles. However, with his sophomore solo effort, he perhaps makes the greatest case thus far for the two eras to be completely separate. While ‘Survivor’ wouldn’t feel out of place in Beyoncé’s solo catalogue, with each passing moment, Styles’ solo work grows more and more divergent from his One Direction discography he left behind – and that is largely for the better. Unlike with Beyoncé and Timberlake, Styles isn’t an example of a star too big for the group that made them. Instead, he is just a person that has grown up and moved on – and Fine Line makes that clear.
On his self-titled debut, Styles newly adopted rocker aesthetic felt half-cooked, not disingenuous, but just not fully realised. It felt like Styles was forcing himself to fit a stereotype, rather than picking and choosing the elements that fit him. It felt like a trial run; some parts worked, and some parts didn’t. On Fine Line, however, it feels like a home run. As his aesthetic becomes more eccentric and he talks more openly about the psychedelics that he uses to help him write, it is all the more relieving to hear the end product. Styles leaves behind the poorer elements of his uneven debut, leaning heavily into the acoustic soft-rock that ‘Sign of the Times’ and ‘From the Dining Table’ the highlights of his debut. With each track on Fine Line, Styles creates a marvellous sense of atmosphere. Whether it’s lazy summer breeze of ‘Sunflower Vol. 6’ and ‘Canyon Moon’, or the crushing rain shower of ‘Falling’, each song feels like an experience in and of itself. His artistic references don’t feel mismatched this time around, wonderfully incorporating elements that would make Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd and The Beatles very proud. The end result is a sumptuous, cohesive and confessional record that feels so wonderfully grounded and authentic, even in its weaker moments.
Thankfully, his writing style remains personal, a gorgeous stream of consciousness that tells stories rather than speaking in cliche. His lyrics feel matter of fact, never laced with any alternative meaning, hidden behind a wall of niche references or deep metaphor. Like his debut, Styles is unsure, although this time around it is no longer about his image or sound. Instead, he is unsure in the face of heartbreak; unsure of what he wants and who he is. He spends much of the album questioning; “Do you who know you are?” he asks on ‘Lights Up’, “What am I now?” he wonders on ‘Falling’. He doesn’t know a lot; whether he can live without “Watermelon Sugar” or who the woman he dreams of is in ‘She’. He’s confused, like every twenty-something. He’s merely doing his best, trying to find himself, the good and the bad. He does know one thing, something he hammers home. As the record comes to a crashing end with its title track, he decides that “we’ll be alright”, and, in the midst of all the uncertainty, there’s something wonderfully comforting in that.