A year ago on Dec. 13, I woke up at 5 a.m. in my dorm room in Rome and raced around to get myself ready to head out the door before 6 a.m. It was my last day in the city and to top it all off, Harry Styles released his sophomore album, “Fine Line,” as a departing gift for me. While I was caught up in the chaos that was returning home to the United States, I never got to give the album the review it deserved, so I’m making up for it a year later.
I stepped onto Via Marcantonio Colonna and pressed play on the opening track, “Golden,” as soon as 6 a.m. hit. It was drizzling and I had forgotten my umbrella, but I took off down the street, smiling and practically running as the intro to the song intensified until Styles kicked it off with a “HEY!” and the main track started. Based on the intro alone, I knew this song was meant to be the opener to his “Love On Tour,” (which was unfortunately rescheduled for 2021). The cymbals in the opening of “Golden” are like an invitation, enticing the listener to follow along for the journey that is this album. Had I not forced myself to listen to the album track-by-track, I would have played this song on repeat until my headphones died.
“Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You” and “Lights Up” were released before the album dropped, but hearing them follow one another on that chilly morning felt comforting. Since they were released so early, they had already become the soundtrack to my walks around the neighborhood of Prati between October and December — songs that made walks to the grocery store bearable, gave life to morning runs and brought a smile to my face on tough days. These songs are easy to digest; the choruses are catchy and their feel-good nature make them easy to listen to — they embody the highs of being in love. Like the rest of the songs on the album, they don’t sound the same, but since they’re the album’s singles it is easy to group them together and continue on with the album if you’ve heard them before.
By the time I heard the beginning notes of “Cherry,” I was wandering down Via Cola Di Rienzo, one of the busiest streets for shopping in Rome. It was practically empty so early in the morning as the rainfall began to intensify, and I can still picture myself standing under an awning to seek shelter from it all as warmth of guitar strings trickled into my headphones; listening to it in this setting made me truly feel this song. I wasn’t an immediate fan of the over-four-minute track, and a year later it still isn’t one of my favorites, but listeners can appreciate how raw it is. “Cherry” captures a certain palette of emotions that demonstrate just how different “Fine Line” is from the sound of Styles’ self-titled debut album. The lyrics are personal and directed, making it feel almost as if you happened to walk in on a breakup scene.
If “Cherry” is the breakup, “Falling” is the aftermath. The piano ballad is like looking through a peephole; lyrics like “What am I now? What am I now? / What if you’re someone I just want around?” draw a picture of Styles sitting alone, fearful of the person he might become as he is left with too much time alone. The aptly-titled song is a fall from grace, a fall from the highs that were presented just a few moments ago on tracks like “Adore You.” The music video shows Styles slowly drowning as he plays the piano, which is the perfect visual representation of how the song feels. It’s the falling action and the turning point of the album all at once. As the rain finally started to seep through my jacket, the melancholic track felt appropriate.
“To Be So Lonely” is like accidentally tapping into a call between two ex-lovers. I only made it just a little further up the street before I found another awning to perch under and “eavesdrop.” The guitar is made to sound like a landline ringing at the beginning of the song, while once the other person picks up the chords mesh together, and we can hear Styles giving his woeful and likely intoxicated post-breakup speech to his ex. The track sounds as authentic, as if Styles transcribed the voicemail from a drunk call. For this reason alone, I feel as though the track deserves more praise.
”She” brings the tempo a bit more up-to-speed, as the album started to slow down with songs like “Cherry.” I remember adjusting the pace of my steps to match the song and my jaw dropping when the bridge started to play. It is a six-minute rock ballad with an iconic guitar solo, and lends itself to repeated listenings. Written in the third person, it is less personal and more ambiguous in terms of meaning than previous tracks.
When “Sunflower Vol. 6” started to play, the streets were getting a little busier as people started their morning commutes, and I remember skipping through puddles as it played. It was instantly my favorite (and wound up being my most played song for 2020, according to Spotify). It’s light and fun, and gasps and adlibs made by Styles throughout the song show that he had just as much fun recording it in the studio as I did frolicking while listening to it at 7 a.m. in the pouring rain.
“Canyon Moon” and “Treat People With Kindness” caught me by surprise in the best way possible. The folk-sounding “Canyon Moon” made me feel like I was sitting by the fire listening to Styles tell a story about the fun days he had growing up, while “Treat People With Kindness,” with its choral opening, was something I could not describe. At this point I was standing in St. Peter’s Square under the colonnades as the rain poured down. But something about these tracks made it feel like I could close my eyes and feel the sun.
“Fine Line,” the closing track of the album, is six minutes of pure bliss. It is the last song I want to hear before I die. It sounds like angels crying. It sounds like being at peace. I started walking back to campus while listening to it, and it felt like the perfect way to say goodbye to the city that I called home for the last four months. “We’ll be a fine line / We’ll be alright” were soothing to hear as the track ended, and a year later in 2020, they hold even more meaning now.
My parents are always able to instantly reel back to a moment in time during their younger years to remember where they were when they first heard a certain song. While my memory is typically horrible, a year ago I realized that I too have an “I remember …” story that I’ll be able to pull out years from now when I hear a song on the radio. Styles’ “Fine Line” is what I would award the “Album of the Century.” It is deeply personal and a perfectly crafted work of art that has something for everyone, whether you are a longtime fan or if “Watermelon Sugar,” is just your guilty pleasure.