Fine Line (Erskine Records/Sony)
The thing I love most about this Harry Styles album, and its self-titled predecessor too, isn’t its music. Though really that’s pretty damn good and I’ll get to it in a minute. What gives me the most pleasure is how much fun Styles is having, how much joy there is in his writing, singing and recording, and how clear it is that this is what he wants to be doing.
That last bit sounds so obvious it’s almost axiomatic: of course it’s what he wants to be doing surely, why do it otherwise? Except that it isn’t a given. Quite the opposite.
Let’s assume that having ditched the (successful and often well done) formula and folderol of the boy band past was a cause for happiness all on its own, though that unfairly assumes he wasn’t enjoying some or many of the things involved in that past.
Making music now with that past regularly brought up; being critiqued by people who automatically assume you’re still a puppet or at least a faker; having some kind of legacy obligation to people who once thought you were ultra fab but aren’t necessarily on the same page as you anymore, musically; and having a few other strings to your creative bow, such as making movies (and hello to you Justin Timberlake) … well, that could very quickly drain the fun out of life’s dream.
Not for Styles. I mean, have you clocked that cover image – those trousers! Those hips! – yet?
From the sunshine-on-the-shoulders yacht rock of Golden, its trilling backing vocals a gust of wind in its sails, to the high and drifting expanse of the title track, which begins like Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago crossed with Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Blue (think forlorn, beautiful, anchored in something natural) and ends with a rousing brass-driven exultation, Fine Line is awash with an obvious joy.
The joy in being able to switch from the blue-eyed soul of Watermelon Sugar and its update to a Blue Nile-like glistening ‘80s pop soul in Adore You to the barebones balladry of Falling, that never succumbs to indulgence. Or being able to throw some McCartney whimsy-and-melody in the light To Be So Lonely and the even slighter I’ve-been-on-a-Caribbean-cruise-ship Sunflower, Vol. 6, because, well because you like it and damn it, you can.
(And you can because the rest of the album is strong enough to carry these tracks.)
Such delight is infectious when it comes with the acoustic guitar/bongos/whistling shuffle of Canyon Moon, which practically dons its cheesecloth shirt and invites all of Crosby, Stills and Nash to jump in on the chorus. Likewise in the incongruously buoyant Cherry, where Styles begs his ex not to let her new lover have the same naming rights as he had.
And it all makes sense of a song which might otherwise invite derision - and in fact flirts with it furiously – the rather surprisingly self-explanatory Treat People With Kindness. Part a reprise of The Polyphonic Spree’s psych church choir, part a funky ‘70s pop band whose collars and flares were wider than road rules allowed, and part a genuine call for just being better to each other, Treat People With Kindness succeeds despite its many reasons not to in 2019.
Interestingly, given the earlier discussion of post-boy band excitement succumbing to ennui eventually, the album’s centrepiece, Lights Up, is what some of us hoped Timberlake might eventually make.
A gliding groove in a more complex than it feels structure, Lights Up blends the suggestion of existential pondering, a voice pitched high and reaching for more, several waves of gospel, and the tender trap of early ‘70s soul, into a glorious driving at dusk mood that does it all in under three minutes.
No wonder Harry Styles sounds happy.