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Although Harry Styles’s self-titled debut album was well-received by critics and fans, a common concern was that the album drew too much on Styles’s musical heroes: Bowie, the Beatles, and Pink Floyd, amongst others. Some listeners enjoyed the striking similarity between Styles’s “Sweet Creature” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, while others found it troubling. Each and every track on the album seemed to emulate a 60s/70s musical great, and revealed more about Styles as a listener than as an artist.

The upside of Styles’s fixation on vintage music and fashion is how refreshing he is, compared to his pop contemporaries. Since the curtain closed on One Direction, everything the twenty-five-year-old does seems to break pop conventions, in such a way that it still feels organic and not merely contrarian. For instance, his newly released second album, Fine Line, had a songwriting team of only nine people and all but three of the twelve tracks were produced by songwriters Thomas Hull and Tyler Johnson. The result of this unconventionally small group of songwriters is a sonic cohesion which threads throughout Fine Line, wonderfully exemplifying that a great album is more than just a collection of great songs. 

The upside of Styles’s fixation on vintage music and fashion is how refreshing he is, compared to his pop contemporaries

The album’s first track is ‘Golden’. After thirteen seconds of pulsating piano and cymbal, the song bursts to life with Styles’ “Hey!”. From then on, Styles punctuates the song’s percussion with his own voice, giving the sense that he is very much in command of both the song and the album to follow. Golden is exciting; it sounds like the second part of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’. Everything about it, from its layered vocals to its driving bass and drums, is indebted to that iconic song (the F1 soundtrack). Nonetheless, ‘Golden’ finds a perfect placement as album-opener and sets the tone for what is to follow: intricate harmonies, flecks of expressive guitar, spaciness and spiciness.

Singles ‘Lights Up’ and ‘Adore You’ appear on the first half of the album and naturally, they are more radio-friendly than their fellows. Both feature pop tendencies of drum loops, negative space, and dominating basslines, but still feel like Styles. In fact, these two songs show that something quite excellent can materialise when he embraces the best elements of musical modernity.

Perfectly placed at track number six, ‘Falling’ cuts through the album like a hot knife through butter. Just when all the rich sounds of Fine Line threaten to overwhelm the senses, this piano ballad grants us a few minutes of respite, allowing us to appreciate everything we have just consumed, while preparing us for more. It is a moment of lyrical vulnerability amongst a sea of reverb-soaked innuendo. Coupled with the rawness of Styles’s vocal, the honesty of this ballad’s lyrics makes it almost uncomfortable to listen to. Accompanied by only one other vocal track (a rarity for Fine Line), Styles acknowledges his culpability, “and there’s no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands,” expresses his fear “what if I’m someone you won’t talk about,” and admits defeat “it kills me ‘cause I know we’ve run out of things we can say”. The lack of rhyme in the lyrics makes them all the more real, and thus, all the more painful. 

Although Styles remains quite impervious to the musical world around him, he is daunted by the musical world behind him

One of the few other tracks that showcase Harry’s lyrical potential is ‘Cherry’, a lament for lost love accompanied by Fleetwood Mac-sounding guitar and Bon Iver harmonies. The Bon Iver influence surfaces again in the album-closer, ‘Fine Line’. The six-minute song is anthemic; another example of this album’s flawless curation. Its peaceful guitar and soft falsetto experience a crescendo until Styles is chanting, almost crying out, “we’ll be alright”. As all great closers should, this song evokes a feeling of resolution, as well as a sense of commencement. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I wish to dissect it no further.

The latter half of the album reminds us that although Styles remains quite impervious to the musical world around him, he is daunted by the musical world behind him and the shoes he thinks he has to fill. If you listen to ‘She’, you’ll know what a Pink Floyd cover of ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ would sound like. Meanwhile, ‘Canyon Moon’ gives you an idea of “Crosby, Stills, and Nash on steroids,” as Harry himself aptly put it. By no means does Styles plagiarise, nor does he interpolate. Rather, he procures the instrumentation and timbre evocative of his favourite artists and with them creates new music. Fine Line’s value as an album depends upon whether you find Styles’s method acceptable. In this sense Fine Line is greater than the sum of musical parts, as it raises interesting questions about the meaning of art and artistry and the problem of original thought.


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Inarguably, Harry’s musical heroes still permeate his music, but one song in particular, ‘Watermelon Sugar’, indicates that Styles is beginning to home in on his sound. It’s no lyrical revelation; another in what is now something of a tradition of songs about sweet treats which are actually *gasp* about oral sex (see 50 Cent’s ‘Lollypop’ and Kelis’s ‘Milkshake’). Even so, something about its sound feels inherently… Harry Styles. The guitar, the horns, the harmonies, the hypnotic repetition, the warmth and space, all combined in perfect quantities prompt the question “now, who does this one sound like?”. The pleasantly surprising answer: “it sounds like Harry Styles”.

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