A pop album with rock-flavored production.
What is it with male pop stars? Why are they like this? Why are so many pop songs by men about doing something shitty and feeling bad about it, or about not being able to change and feeling bad about it, or expecting women to forgive everything they do because they feel bad about it? Why do these men think being a jerk is an incurable disease that makes them the victims instead of the women they wrong? Are we supposed to find this sexy? Are we supposed to feel for them? Songs like the ones on Harry Styles’ second album Fine Line just make us feel contempt when we’re supposed to feel empathy.
“Falling” might be an apology for groping a girl. “I’m in my bed and you’re not here/ And there’s no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands,” he complains. When he pitches his voice up an octave and bellows about how he’s “falling” on the chorus, we’re supposed to feel bad because he knows he fucked up. But does he really? “Don’t blame me for falling,” he says on the first line of the next song, “To Be So Lonely.” “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit that he’s sorry.” To someone like Styles, an admission of wrongdoing is as good as an apology, never mind if he’ll do wrong again – which he will.
The 12 tracks here follow a loose progression, chronicling his breakup with model Camille Rowe. But the title track’s conclusion – “spreading you open is the only way of knowing you” – makes it clear he hasn’t learned anything. Breakup albums are often petty and one-sided, allowing (usually) a man with a bigger bullhorn than his paramour to put his partner on blast to the whole world; that Styles has been spotted with Adele, whose kiss-offs pull no punches, is all but proof that karma exists. “I wanted to be true to [the breakup],” Styles told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe in November. There’s something admirable about that, but we don’t even need to hear Rowe’s perspective to know who was in the right.
“Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?” These questions nag at us for more reasons than one. Styles has ordained himself as a rock star, but he’s also working within the pop money machine, and a lot of people have bet their careers on this album. So the sense of spontaneity in great rock is absent, and every piano trill on “Golden” or whoop of joy on “Sunflower, Vol. 6” feels as pasted-in as any trap snare. Six-minute “She” ends with a guitar-synth solo that rivals Lana Del Rey’s “Venice Bitch” – and then cuts off at the end of the bar, where the producer decided to end the loop, rather than ending with a chord like a rock song.
What Fine Line really is is a pop album with rock-flavored production. This helps it in some ways. It doesn’t feel trendy. It has a pleasant AM-analog sheen rare in mainstream music. Some of the songs are pretty, not least “Golden” with its Beach Boys ba-da-dahs and “Treat People with Kindness” with its humanistic faux-George Harrison opening. To a rockist mindset, this album will seem a lot better than it is, will seem somehow more than and apart from pop. To anyone that’s kept up with the charts, it’s a reminder of the toxicity that’s made so many in this day and age distrustful of rock – and of male pop stars.