Try and Try 100 Times: Harry Styles and the Lost Art of Song Sequencing

Determining the perfect tracklist for ‘Fine Line’ was no easy task.

Harry Styles Fine Line
Courtesy Sony Music

Sequencing has become somewhat of a lost art in the age of shuffle, but not in Harry Styles’ eyes — or ears. To hear Variety‘s Hitmaker of the Year tell it, an album’s cohesion relies on getting the track list right. How many variations did the singer consider before deciding the final order of “Fine Line’s” 12 tracks? Just under a hundred, he confesses.

Styles’ producer Kid Harpoon says the “meticulous” singer and songwriter’s approach to sequencing isn’t all that different from how he determines the set-list for his live show. “When we were doing the arena tour, we’d practice different sets,” he says, adding that he remembered thinking, “I don’t know; That’s not going to work; It doesn’t look right to me.” But the end result, says Kid Harpoon, “was perfect — it’s really hard to do that on paper, but Harry definitely has a knack for it.”

When it came to the album “Fine Line,” half the internal battle was already won in that Styles had determined from the get-go that “Golden” would kick off the release and that the title track would end it. That left “everything in between,” adds Kid Harpoon. “Harry is very specific in that he wants an album, not a collection of songs.” To test out different configurations, the two would go for a drive and listen.

Styles’ view was straightforward: “How do you want people to hear your work?,” he tells Variety. “Because I do sit down and listen to albums, and I care about the way that things run — how that makes me feel and the story that it tells. It’s only natural that I would put emphasis on that.”

Styles acknowledges “starting with the bookends.” They, too have a purpose. “So if you have the album on repeat, it can be a circular thing,” he reveals. “And then it’s just building it out. You’ll have a song and think, ‘This feels like a track six. I don’t know why; it just does.’ You listen all the way through and figure out: There’s too much of this, or I get bored here, or this comes too fast. … Patience with sequencing is so much of it and the sequencing on this one definitely took a lot longer than the first album.”

It’s not lost on Styles, however, that we’re living in a time of playlists and shuffle. As he recalls second-hand: “Someone was telling this story about their young son. They were driving. The son was in the back of the car and he was, like, ‘Dad, why have you played eight Bruno Mars songs back-to-back?’ And the dad thought: ‘Oh God, my son doesn’t know what an album is.'”

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