Styles’s bell-bottom bops, in fact, defy the post-boy-band prophecies left by the ’NSync generation. Other One Directioners like Zayn Malik and Liam Payne have attempted, predictably and with somewhat wobbly success, to transition from soundtracking high-school sleepovers to fueling sexually charged nightclubs. Malik at first seemed to update Justin Timberlake’s golden combo—auteur credibility plus commercial appeal—for the Xanax age, but his second album didn’t stick. Liam Payne is making quite like JC Chasez with hambone hip-pop about girls who kiss girls.
Styles has opted to take a route that impresses fogies who refuse to see recent, and even not-so-recent, pop innovations as “real music.” I have to share what the über-Boomer music-industry pundit Bob Lefsetz wrote about a Styles concert in 2017: “Except for the flashy lights, this could be the seventies. There’s a four piece band backing Harry up. It’s all about the music. And the music hearkens back to the past, do you remember MELODY? It’s like the evolution into hip-hop nation never happened. And the little girls understand.” As suspect on every level as that review is, the notion behind (gag) “the little girls understand” can be fact-checked as true. Read my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany’s report on the bidding wars for Styles’s concert tickets. He’s kept his old fans.
He’s achieved this feat by working hard, by working smart, and by working with the right collaborators. Fine Line is lush and listenable, with nougat-caramel harmonies and guitars that fizz like Sprite. It has trembling strings and trembling confessions; it has cutesy instruments such as guitalele and clavichord. In the great “Watermelon Sugar,” Styles goes from sounding wearied to like he’s levitating an inch off the ground, magicked by handclaps and a liquid bass line. Another single, “Lights Up,” offers the sort of spooky-yet-easy listening rarely attempted since Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” Even the snoozier bits sound good, like with the six-minute trip of “She.”
The album’s best passage comes late, with the teasing reggae of “Sunflower, Vol. 6” followed by the strummy commiseration of “Canyon Moon.” It’s notable that these two songs most obviously evoke not any particular AARP mascot but rather a contemporary band, Vampire Weekend. That’s because of a resemblance among song names (VW’s Father of the Bride featured “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon”), some clear consonance in studio equipment they used, and most important, a certain tone: rambling and catchy and tongue-in-cheek, yet also hopeful and openhearted. Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison can be heard in these tracks too, but they’re filtered in the much the same way Ezra Koenig filtered them on his 2019 world-peace opus.
It is, in fact, instructive to think of Styles in relation to Vampire Weekend and also to the year’s other critically and popularly beloved rock nostalgist, Lana Del Rey, who gives the impression of writing her lyrics by cutting up Columbia House album booklets and pasting them in a new order. If these three artists are brokering a truce with their elders, it’s in part by reminding them what they once were thought to stand for. The children of the ’60s are driving today’s regressive politics, but their art presumed to speak in terms of justice and tolerance. Those messages are what today’s retro-pop leaders are reaching back to, in addition to the scorching licks.