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The Evolution of Harry Styles, From Boy Band Survivor to Genre-Hopping Hipster

The former One Direction member is back with ‘Fine Line,’ a new album that jumps from new wave to Laurel Canyon sounds to Bon Iver–style indie

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best song on the new Harry Styles record sounds like multiple phases of Bon Iver colliding in midair. Which is to say it’s a young, liberated English boy band veteran taking solace, if not quite finding liberation, in scruffy 21st-century American indie rock that already sounds several decades older than it (or he) actually is. Which is to say that the closer and title track to Fine Line, Styles’s second solo album since One Direction’s increasingly indefinite 2016 hiatus, is a lovelorn arena-folk power ballad about two beautiful people failing to find much common ground, while in the background, rockism and popism (not to mention the seemingly disparate years 1979, 1989, 2009, and 2019) find quite a lot of it.

“Put a price on emotion / I’m looking for somethin’ to buy,” moans Styles in a shaggy falsetto over spare acoustic guitar as the song begins, the burly beard and ice-crusted hunting cabin of Bon Iver’s career-making 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago all but visible. “Fine Line” is a feast of exquisite melancholy with quick spikes of sensuality: “Spreading you open / Is the only way of knowing you,” Styles observes forlornly over rising piano and bass as the electronic frippery of current Bon Iver swells alongside him. The song eventually bursts into a triumphant but extra-melancholy horn riff, reminiscent of this earthy and towering 2011 BI jam, that throws off the time signature and pulls various angelic voices, Harry’s and others’, into its mighty vortex, like an emotional whirlpool, like a gargantuan stylistic blender. It’s a fearsome battle royale between modern boldface pop and what a noted Styles ex and fellow superstar once memorably described as “an indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”

Starting with his loopy and lovably ambitious 2017 solo debut, Harry Styles (dig the very absurd glam-rock cowbell on “Only Angel”), our man has sought to reinvent himself as what my then–Ringer colleague Lindsay Zoladz described at the time as “The Last Aspiring Rock Star,” a boy band heartthrob now aching to join the ranks of David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and especially Fleetwood Mac. The difference between Styles and every other jamoke aching to crack that pantheon is that he has sufficient pull to, for example, coax the real-life Stevie Nicks onstage in L.A. to sing “Landslide,” as he did just a few days ago. He’s the sleekest new version of the Old Soul archetype, traipsing amid myriad genres and eras, and time has, indeed, made him bolder.

Back in 2017, in his first Rolling Stone cover story, Styles had extraordinarily perceptive things to say about One Direction’s legendarily formidable fan base: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” Flash-forward to this August for his second Rolling Stone cover story, in which we find Styles tickling real-life Van Morrison and blasting ’70s yacht rock from a Tesla and extolling the virtues of listening to Paul McCartney’s Ram on mushrooms. He is only a 25-year-old hipster yet, but children, indeed, get older too. In their attempts to carry on as present-tense pop stars, the other One Direction guys have found some success (Zayn has his semi-erotic moments) but also much abysmal failure (Liam Payne’s lousy new fake–Ed Sheeran album deserves to be classified as literature just so it can win a Bad Sex in Fiction award). Whereas Styles continues to believe that his immediate future is somewhere back in the past. He’s just not sure how far back, exactly.

Much of Fine Line’s early discourse has rightly fixated on its probably-a-sex-thing album cover and its semi-covert references to Styles’s ex-lovers (French model Camille Rowe especially) and the splendidly escalating flamboyance of his likewise timeless and boundless fashion sense. (He is among GQ’s nominees for Most Stylish Man of the Decade, and recently gently sidestepped questions about his personal life in an interview with The Guardian: “Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No.”) Sometimes these elements combine on this record in very pleasing and/or heartbreaking ways: “I noticed that there’s a piece of you in how I dress / Take it as a compliment,” he croons on “Cherry,” a delicate post-breakup lament that features his most specific, and thus most vivid, and thus most universal bouts of sad-sack poetry:

I ...
I just miss
I just miss your accent and your friends
Did you know I still talk to them?
Does he take you walking ’round his parents’ gallery?

The album’s moodiest moments double as the most unstuck in time, universal in every respect: The chest-pounding piano ballad “Falling” could’ve been a super-maudlin hit anytime in the past 50 years. (Indeed, a notably less stylish British singer-songwriter named Lewis Capaldi hit no. 1 in October with a treacly weeper called “Someone You Loved.”) But much of Fine Line, mostly recorded in Malibu with a writer-producer crew including pop-star-whisperer Jeff Bhasker and more specific Harry Styles–whisperers Mitch Rowland and Tom “Kid Harpoon” Hull, functions as a luscious time machine. There’s lots of ’70s soft-rock grandiosity both sped up (the breathy and breathless album opener “Golden”) and slowed down (the falsetto-and-guitar-solo epic “She”). There’s also lots of R&B-adjacent electro-pop, a proud and appealingly stiff lineage spanning from Maroon 5 to the Killers to INXS to Duran Duran, here present in buoyantly stately jams like “Lights Up” and the probably-a-sex-thing “Watermelon Sugar.

Occasionally, this time-traveling rock-historian approach gets a little too clunky: “Canyon Moon” is an amiable guitars-and-whistling lope that Styles has dutifully described as “Crosby, Stills, and Nash on steroids,” adding that “I was in a pretty big Joni hole,” which is historically a pretty tough hole to climb out of. It’s a reasonably catchy earworm that can’t help sounding like an awkward genre exercise. (“Yes, that ‘unmistakable Laurel Canyon sound,’” Father John Misty grumbled to The New Yorker back in 2017. “The sound of Laurel Canyon is entertainment lawyers screaming at their dogs.”) Styles is at his best when you can’t tell when or where or what or who he’s aiming for, as on the ukulele-driven oddity “To Be So Lonely” or the sleek new wave jam “Adore You,” which doesn’t not sound like Taylor Swift’s “Style” and is also Track 3 on its respective record, if you insist on succumbing to the celebrity intrigue of it all.

That intrigue will always be a major force, if not a dominant distraction, on a Harry Styles record: “Cherry” seems to conclude with voicemail fragments from Camille Rowe herself. But the song itself can withstand all the gossip and internet content it is bound to generate, with delicate acoustic guitar and a sturdy melody and a shrewd sense of atmosphere that is equal parts Laurel Canyon and Bon Iver’s beloved Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Styles desires above all to be a moving target, fluid in genre and region and era, for starters. You’d love him just a little bit less, he figures, if you could ever pin him down.