Harry Styles is a frustrating figure because he’s not easily pinned down. When he released the steamy video for single “Lights Up,” on Oct. 11 (a.k.a. National Coming Out Day), it seemed like he was making some kind of statement on his sexuality. It’s not a totally outlandish concept—he’s surrounded by naked bodies of all genders in the orgy-like video. To make matters more interesting, the 25-year-old’s wardrobe has become increasingly androgynous throughout the year: Early last month, he donned a gender-neutral sheep sweater-vest, and the internet nearly imploded (it’s a very adorable sweater). In August, a waxed-and-primped Styles blew us kisses from the pages of Rolling Stone and told Rob Sheffield his new album Fine Line is “all about having sex and feeling sad.” Yet, he remains tight-lipped about the sexual specifics, even on the record itself. Could he possibly be bisexual? Or is he just an especially spritzy brand of metro? And does it matter either way?
Fine Line doesn’t really do much to demystify the ambiguous former One Direction frontman, but the fact that he refuses to adhere to any one identity is what makes this brisk record so wonderful. It’s almost like Styles is trolling us. He knows we’re all thirsty for the juice on his sexual identity, but rather than serve us the libations over ice with a splash of lime, he dumps a bucket of unassuming love songs on our heads, not unlike anything you’d hear on any pop album by anyone. These songs are blissfully unremarkable. The satisfaction in hearing them isn’t in the information gleaned, but, rather, in the joy of watching this young solo star stake his claim as an artist and as an icon. Fine Line is its own entity separate from Styles’ actual personal life, but it’s a riveting entry point to the next phase of his persona: the male pop star who rejects gender and celebrity conventions while simultaneously polishing a conventional pop sound, and becoming unattainably cool in the process. Harry Styles is an “it” guy now.
But he still doesn’t fit the narrative laid out for him by the media on Fine Line, so the listener is forced to seek fulfillment between the lines—something that could actually be good for Styles at this point in his career. Maybe the record isn’t an autobiography, or even a portrait, but that’s OK: The songs themselves do enough aesthetic handiwork to make for a pleasant, if not always challenging, listen. Album opener “Golden” recalls the best of One Direction: dizzy pop passion toned down ever so slightly by loose acoustics, a sound the then-teen British heartthrobs mastered on 2014’s FOUR. “Watermelon Sugar” is perhaps the most traditional pop song on Fine line, bursting with Prince-y basslines and an easily repeatable chorus. “Watermelon” has been a dirty word pretty much ever since Beyoncé likened it to oral sex back in 2013, so Styles’ references throughout the song to various fruits (especially that titular “watermelon sugar high”) are more than a tad on-the-nose.
Elsewhere, Styles makes admirable attempts at trying on different sounds from throughout pop music history. “Adore You,” teeming with ambience and layered guitars, plus some Far East sound effects that could’ve been plucked straight from The Mandalorian theme, owes Kevin Parker a thing or two. “Cherry” is a positively radiant indie-folk number that closes with a few lewd lines spoken in French (perhaps a nod to another song from Beyoncé’s watermelon era?) Fine Line closes in a similar manner with the title track, which would quite literally fit in on For Emma, Forever Ago and if sung by a Jason Mraz type circa 2009, would have most certainly ended up in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
“Canyon Moon” is the jam-band outlier, and “She” the wistful trance with a stoner guitar solo. The former sounds like taking a walk down memory lane with Mike Gordon and Rusted Root, where the latter obnoxiously dreams up Styles’ ideal woman before whining about how she doesn’t exist (Mr. Styles is currently believed to be dating Kendall Jenner). Also on Side B, the thoroughly overwrought “Treat People With Kindness” can’t decide if it’s a Queen-indebted anthem or a kindergarten sing-along complete with bongos and off-pitch singers, and it kind of makes me want to vomit. But what’s a potentially culture-defining pop album without at least one try at a feel-good song?
There are plenty of imperfect moments on Fine Line, but nothing so damning that it’s not enjoyable. Harry Styles fans are going to listen to this album no matter what, but the eager-to-please artist also catered to the everyday music fan, too. On Fine Line, he isn’t afraid to try a little bit of everything.
Styles could have easily marched backwards on this album, abandoning the half-baked intentions to explore the best of pop and rock history that he first tested—and, ultimately, failed to incorporate—on his 2017 debut. But he instead kept moving forward in his rock ambitions, skipped into new sonic territory and got all that much closer to a genre-fluid endgame. The result isn’t a stroke of grandeur: Fine Line is entirely inoffensive, but it’s also open-ended, and maybe those questions are the reward. Maybe Harry Styles just wants to keep us guessing. And if his music continues to morph with his restless public image, I’ll be more than happy to do so.