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Harry Styles Is a Rock God and a Gentleman on ‘Fine Line’

The English pop star makes retro-rock with a sensitive touch on his excellent second album

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Nick Catucci Dec 13, 2019

If there's a nontoxic masculinity, Harry Styles just might've found it. And that's the kind of magic mushrooms can't buy. Photo: Ryan McGinley for Rolling Stone

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If you’re listening for evidence of the many psychedelic mushrooms Harry Styles says he ate during the recording of his outstanding second album, you will have to wait until Fine Line‘s second to last song for a dose. But when “Treat People With Kindness” arrives, it trips balls. Musing about “floating up and dreaming / Dropping into the deep end” over a feverish groove of congas, handclaps and Mellotron, Styles calls upon a gospel chorus to take him even higher: “Maaaaybe, we can find a place to feeeel good,” they thunder in full Seventies musical-theatre mode. “To feel good!”

Though Harry Styles Superstar would have been a gloriously mad album, Fine Line is not the magical mystery tour one might have assumed the breakout One Direction heartthrob set his sights on following his classic-rock-inspired debut, Harry Styles. But it’s not him suddenly declaring, “OK, boomer,” either. Like his brilliant uniform of flowing, high-waisted trousers and shagadelic chest-baring shirts — loud retro looks hot off the Gucci runway — it’s a streamlined, party-ready, primary-colors take on the enduring concept of the rock & roll starman. It’s also as much as fun as anyone short of Bruno Mars is having with a band these days. (Especially when Styles, an irresistible flirt of a singer, gets playful like he does on heartbreaker ballad “Cherry,” dragging out the word “haaaating” from “I’m hating it” like he’s repeating a favorite line from Clueless.)

With short-story lyrics about a family man’s life of quiet desperation and a six-minute build to wailing guitar drama, “She” might be the closest thing here to a “Sign of the Times“-style homage to Bowie and the Beatles. But the Sixties and Seventies signifiers sprinkled throughout the album — a little organ, some clavinet and even George Harrison specials like electric sitar and sarangi — are expertly Vitamixed into pop-rock smoothies you can dance to, like the strutting “Adore You” and soulful “Lights Up.”

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Aided by genre-fluid songwriters like Kid Harpoon, Jeff Bhasker, Greg Kurstin, and Amy Allen, Styles is also now mining some rich millennial veins as well. Busy and beachy, “Sunflower Vol. 6” could sit next to Vampire Weekend on any playlist. The title track emerges from a darkly beautiful Bon Iver-like haze into a big, semi-hopeful, brass-and-martial-drums finish; with a measure of uncertainty fitting the close of this chaotic decade, Styles promises: “We’ll be all right.”

That “we,” as the Harries will surely speculate, may be Styles and his ex, the French model Camille Rowe. Indeed, the grand rock-album tradition in which Fine Line indulges is not the long strange trip but the totally predictable breakup. Even the dreamily propulsive opening track, “Golden,” in which Styles compares thee to a summer’s day that “browns my skin just right,” finds him foreshadowing the inevitable sunset: “I don’t wanna be alone / When it ends.”

No Talmudic study of the lyrics will be required of the stans. If the “I just miss your accent and your friends” breadcrumbs in “Cherry” don’t suffice, the recording of Rowe giggling and speaking in French should take them home. But as perfectly suited to binging on Spotify and dissecting on Twitter as the album may be (Styles streams even better than he does on radio), it’s how consciously he uncouples here that truly sets him apart from the old testament rock gods. “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry,” he confesses in the syncopated slow-burner “To Be So Lonely.” In the otherwise forgettable ballad “Falling,” he channels every woman hounded by a needy guy (or worse), asking, “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” If there’s a nontoxic masculinity, Harry Styles just might’ve found it. And that’s the kind of magic mushrooms can’t buy.

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