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Do you have to be a stan to get in?
When it comes to reviewing the music of a cultishly adored artist, the lines get blurred. Sometimes, I feel hesitation in writing anything if I haven’t connected on the visceral level witnessed at shows, in brilliant reviews, and played out in mesmerizing social media loops. There is a sweetness, in the madness — but when you haven’t felt the sugar on your lips, the zealous adoration can be prohibitive.
Stan culture, the three-sheets-to-the-wind, obsessive hallmark of late 2010s fandom came for One Direction at the top of the decade, but I felt nothing. With even more force, in 2017, it came for Harry Styles, solo artist, de facto representative of the One Direction spirit. Still, I felt nothing. My loss, I was sure. I wanted in, I wanted to care. I wanted to feel what these girls felt, what shook their earth. Beyond the music, the way Harry respected and elevated his young female fans awakened some new admiration in me that I’d never experienced with a male pop star. I’d like to call it a slow burn, when I eventually fell in, but it wasn’t. It was two words: watermelon sugar.
More artists should debut hit singles live, again, like they used to, like Harry Styles did last month with “Watermelon Sugar.” Seeing and feeling an artist introduce a song into the world live gives the moment a sense of drama that not even the most expertly orchestrated music video in the world can capture; it indicates what the song will feel like, live, in concert, a feeling that Styles obviously wants to replicate, since that’s so clearly where he shines. Whether it was seeing him sing the song up on stage for SNL, or the track’s expert, earworm hook, punctuated by brass and innuendo nonsense, this song finally won me over — and I think, perhaps, I’m not alone in that.
News that an entire album was coming late in the year went over just as you’d expect — like a second Christmas was on the way. For once, the stans and I were in agreement, even if the reasons I love Fine Line match up exactly with why I don’t like his debut. Harry Styles was a strange, stunning left turn for a member of the most successful boy band since The Beatles. Its lead single, “Sign Of The Times,” was a downtempo piano ballad that reached for Bowie and Prince but only hit Bon Jovi — earworm, it was not, and it’s most akin to the worst song on Fine Line, “Treat People With Kindness.”
Both songs swing and miss at the gargantuan task of pop song as generational call-to-arms, and even if the sentiment behind each is to be commended, the execution doesn’t live up to the emotion. Though I’d level that same criticism at the rest of Styles’ initial, self-titled debut, it simply does not apply to the follow-up: Fine Line is a legacy album already, and it’s only three days old. Though “Watermelon Sugar” wasn’t the official single, it quickly eclipsed his initial return, “Lights Up,” a hushed, gospel-infused unveiling that’s more invocation than dancefloor banger, but has crept up on me as another favorite. That Harry remains committed to including both in the lead up to his album is more telling of what kind of pop star he wants to be, even more than the curveball of his debut.
Styles came up in one of the most successful pop acts in the world, but he is deeply committed to music of all tempos, tones, and temperaments, and won’t be delivering upbeat pop hits for the sake of it — an obvious victory in the era of copycat, soundalike streaming hits. Even if Fine Line is more obviously geared toward being a “radio record, it’s still more genuine than his previous release. In fact, there’s still a temptation to compare Harry to Paul McCartney, between the tousled, sweet boyishness, songwriting marked by tender longing, and the hints of crisp British phrasing on certain lyrics. Standout album cuts like “Cherry” and “She” tap into an eternal, lonely loveliness that yearns without pining, and personal touches like the voicemail snippet from his ex-girlfriend, Camille Rowe, on “Cherry,” or the calm, stoic verses juxtaposed with psychedelic interludes on “She” evokes the magic of The Beatles without feeling derivative.
There’s a reason artists like Bowie and McCartney have already come up in this review, even when he isn’t at his best, Styles is in the upper echelon of living pop stars in the world, a fact he keeps doubling down on at every juncture. And if his debut was hyper-focused on the past, Fine Line functions like a summary, enhancement, and conclusion to the best urges of pop over the last decade. It is the classic album Styles needed to secure his place as one of this decade’s stars, and it will be remembered and celebrated well into the next one as well.
Like all instant classics, everyone has a different favorite song on the album — some swear by the dreamy twee of the title track, others can’t turn off the jangly, ennui-jam “Canyon Moon.” Most often, I’m scanning through the wordless, euphoric rush of album opener, “Golden,” and shooting straight into “Adore You,” a funky, sensual jam that owes at least half its DNA to Miguel’s maybe almost namesake, “Adorn.” A trusted close-listener adores the deep album cut “Sunflower, Vol. 6,” and again, Styles’ taste and respect for his peers is showing through, as this tune is spiritual kin to his labelmates Vampire Weekend’s 2019 track, “Sunflower.”
Despite these bridges to and from other hits or other stars, Fine Line is also an island. There is not a male pop star on the horizon who can hold a candle to the hurricane Styles kicks up when he decides to put out music. Bieber is not an emblem of the gentle, intelligent masculinity that Harry intuitively embodies, Sheeran can’t connect as directly to his fans, can’t write a song as honest and oblique, even if he desperately wants to. Harry Styles is beloved because he is — and has been — actively remaking the role of male pop star. In the past, that cultural bent has been bigger than the music; it has mattered more. But on Fine Line, the songs are pulling ahead. If you’re not in yet, you will be soon. Sit back and wait for the watermelon sugar high to hit. The madness has never been sweeter.
Fine Line is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.