Harry Styles has chosen to use his superpowers for good and not evil. These powers were vested in him by the superstar status of One Direction, which with each passing month sets new records for longest hiatus ever, even as its members meander in multiple directions. The most satisfying of these detours has been Styles’ full immersion in an era that predates him by a few generations, the mellow gold of the 1970s, which, when he released his eponymous solo debut two and a half years ago, made for quite an interesting dichotomy between his fan base and his bank of influences. It was, essentially, Dad-rock for girls. You remember that saying about the men not knowing, but the little girls understanding? Well, the men would have gotten Styles’ initial solo music just fine, if any of them had shown up for the shows. The seats were filled anyway.
Come Styles’ second album, the question was: Would he chicken out and play more directly to his target demo? “Sign of the Times” was not quite the No. 1 hit everyone thought it would be; that can happen with six-minute ballads that sound like Nilsson, in the late 2010s. You could also raise the more cynical question of whether the ‘70s influence was a trendy coat he borrowed from his older co-writer/producers, to be discarded as easily as whatever that black lace getup was that he wore to the Met Gala. Suspicions along these lines might have seemed founded when he released a teaser track (not an official single, the record company would like to remind us) called “Lights Up,” which was fine, but which sounded faintly… contemporary. Retro-Harry, we hardly knew ye…?
It is a relief to report, then, that, heard as a whole, the “Fine Line” album makes almost no sops to sounding like anything else you’ll hear on the radio (unless you’re, like, counting SiriusXM’s The Loft). He was so much older then, and he’s still not that much younger-sounding now, as it turns out. The opening track, “Golden,” is probably an ode to a girl, not a state, but as the harmonies kick in alongside the slide guitar, there’s a hint that he’s been keeping spiritual if not literal company in California with Crosby, Stills & Nash — an influence that becomes more explicit later on in “Canyon Moon,” a happy charmer with some introductory acoustic strumming that inescapably brings to mind “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Which is not to say that Styles and his collaborators save all their laurels for Cali in this Malibu-recorded collection, because there are plenty of vintage English influences, too. Several of the songs have McCartney-esque interludes, like slightly druggier versions of album tracks he might have released in his fruitful ‘70s solo heyday. (We swear we wrote this observation down in our listening notes before looking up the recent Rolling Stone interview where Styles name-checked Macca’s “London Town” and said of the interludes in recording sessions: “We’d do mushrooms, lie down on the grass, and listen to Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ in the sunshine.”) Is it coincidence, or conjuring, that ex-Wings guitarist Laurence Juber pops up on one song? Juber’s hit-songwriter daughter, Ilsey Juber, co-wrote a track on the album, so that’s probably the connection — but you get the feeling that Styles is the kind of guy who totally knows and digs that Juber was a band member on one of his favorite McCartney albums, “Back to the Egg.”
There’s a good degree of crossover with the team that assisted Styles on his previous album, with Tyler Johnson producing or co-writing on nearly all the tracks, although Jeff Bhusker’s role as collaborator is diminished in the credits and Kid Harpoon’s is elevated. Outsiders are surprisingly few, although star bassist Pino Palladino has been brought in to play the loudest, most McCartney-esque bass you’ve ever heard on the six-minute slow jam “She,” and the vocal duo Lucius makes a harmonic contribution to the delightfully loopy “Treat People With Kindness” that’s less in their usual soul style than almost Yoko-esque. Styles has kept his team pretty insular here, aside from one guest-starring production turn from Greg Kurstin, who definitely stays in the spirit of things on the dancehall-flavored “Sunflower, Vol. 6” by throwing in an electric sitar break.
You do get a couple more distinctly modern outliers, besides the heavenly electro-chorale of “Lights Up.” The new single (the real one), “Adore You,” have a throbbing beat and a funk rhythm guitar that make it sound like a danceable, easygoing answer song to the ode Taylor Swift supposedly wrote to him, “Style.” And if you squint, you could imagine it’s Maroon 5 slurping up the “Watermelon Sugar.” But generally his blues, such as they are, are definitely of the bell-bottom variety.
How blue is he? Styles has said the album is “all about having sex and feeling sad,” but both the sensuality and the melancholy are a little on the muted side, as if he weren’t totally convinced he should be heartbroken over the breakup the record is supposed to be largely about. (Clues as to which woman he might be referring to get pretty obvious when he has distinctly French-accented female dialogue looped in at the end of “Cherry.”) It’s more an album about romantic ambivalence, really, which is a perfectly fine subject for a 25-year-old who’s still sowing some oats to settle in on.
You don’t need to be ambivalent about “Fine Line,” though. If he’s not necessarily ready to play the hero in a relationship yet, he’s certainly coming off as one of the good guys in how he’s defying blockbuster expectations by following his muse back into the classic rock era and casually claiming it as his own. He’s still stuck on what’s apparently his real first true love: analog.
Producers: Tyler Johnson, Kid Harpoon, Sammy Witte, Greg Kurstin, Jeff Bhasker. Songwriters: Styles, Johnson, Witte, Bhasker, Thomas Hull, Mitch Rowland, Amy Allen, Isley Juber.