Album Review – Harry Styles’ ‘Fine Line’

Harry Styles made a promising debut with his self-titled album, showing at times he has the ear and vision to pull off classic sounds of rock past. But the biggest criticism I had for his first album was that the songwriting needed to get better, as it was completely forgettable at times. Two years later he’s back with the follow-up album, Fine Line. And unfortunately I find myself uttering the same criticism as I listen to it.

Opening song “Golden” sounds very pretty and fun, like something you would hear from Fleetwood Mac in their heyday of the 70s. But then you listen to the lyrics and they couldn’t be more basic and paint-by-the-numbers. For crying out loud the hook is Styles dryly singing “You’re so golden.” There’s just no creativity, true emotion and weight behind these lyrics. This is basically the running theme of a lot of songs on this album: great sound, ho-hum lyrics. “Watermelon Sugar” is easily the worst song on this album from a songwriting viewpoint, as the lyrics are so saccharine I want to gag as I listen to them. What the hell is watermelon sugar high? It sounds like something a 12-year-old would come up with.

“Adore You” is a solid song about begging for someone to let them love you. It does a good job of describing the sights and sounds of the woman Styles is pining for and getting across how much he wants her. The sound is bouncy and fun too with the electric slide guitars. “Lights Up” would work much better if it had more energy in the production and from Styles’ vocals. It comes off boring as it is, making it easy to skip over. “Cherry” sees Styles confronting his selfish attitude toward his ex and their breakup, struggling to accept she’s better now while trying to suppress his feelings of wanting her to come back to him. It’s a good song because the songwriting tells a relatable and interesting story, which I wish was more present on this album. The twangy, folk pop sound compliments the lyrics and mood of the song well too.

“Falling” continues the theme of Styles doubting himself and questioning his words and actions towards his ex. Once again, when Styles digs deep and incorporates emotion into his lyrics, he does a great job. Styles does especially good on piano ballads like this, as it suits his throwback style and voice. But he just can’t maintain a consistent level of high quality songwriting throughout an entire album, as “To Be So Lonely” and “She” go back to the bland and unmemorable songwriting that kicks off this album. The former is run-of-the-mill coffee shop pop, while the latter just rambles and rambles without anything to say.

“Sunflower, Vol. 6” is fantastic sound-wise, melding classic and modern to create a trippy and fun beat. Credit to producer Greg Kurstin. But these lyrics would fall under the category of what John Lennon would call Paul McCartney “granny shit.” Just like “Golden,” these are meandering mediocre lyrics that would fit nicely in a commercial for Tide. “Canyon Moon” perfects that 70s, Laurel Canyon sound and I hope Styles continues to pursue this sound. I also enjoy the lyrics, as a man recalls the times he spent with his love under a canyon moon. It’s light, fun and one of my favorites on Fine Line.

“Treat People With Kindness” is another highlight on the album. I love how the song opens with a backing choir and how they continue to interlude throughout. While the theme is a bit heavy handed in it’s delivery, it doesn’t cross the line and most importantly lets the piano and backing choir drive the rhythm and mood of the song. And unlike a lot of dance songs today, it doesn’t smack you over the head with overproduction. It’s smooth, easy-going music that’s quite likable. The album’s title track closes out the album, as Styles concludes there’s a fine line in his emotions towards his ex, even though he seems to be leaning more towards moving on from her. I wish this song would be fleshed out a bit more, as there’s a lot of repetition of “We’ll be a fine line.” But I guess it’s fitting the album closes like this.

Harry Styles’ sophomore album Fine Line is such a frustrating listen because you can hear the glimpses of greatness, but they get muddled by sub-par songwriting and half-built ideas. Styles clear has a knack for finding great sounds, but the songwriting still leaves something to be desired. I really wanted to like this album more, as I believe it’s going to take an artist like Styles to re-birth rock into the mainstream realm. This is certainly not a bad album. But it’s definitely a discontenting decent album, as I just can’t help but wonder how this album could have turned out if it was more complete.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

For an artist that tries his damndest to avoid the public eye, Sturgill Simpson certainly generates a lot of discussion and opinions when he does show his face. Coming into his fourth album SOUND & FURY, it was to be expected after a long wait and his announcing that it wouldn’t be a country album. And this comes after he’s been living under a rock the last two and a half years.  A polarizing artist in a polarizing society causing reactions on both extremes of the spectrum. A real shocker, huh? With this review I hope to bring a different view of why I think this album is brilliant, but also try to make sense of the mischaracterizations being put forth too.

“Ronin” opens with the sounds of a speeding car and Joe Rogan doing a spot-on Alex Jones impersonation over the radio. This gives way to the cinematic and grooving sounds of Simpson on lead guitar and Chuck Bartels shredding on the bass (Bartels really breaks out on this record). It all sets the tone and lets you know you’re in for a rock and roll album. This segues right into “Remember to Breathe,” which intimately details an assassin getting ready to make a kill and then doing so. It’s one of the more sinister and dark songs from Simpson and the excellent drum play of Miles Miller provides that ominous, rumbling feel with Bobby Emmert on the synth giving it that “samurai showdown” feel.

Lead single “Sing Along” is probably the most “accessible” song, as it’s about a man watching the woman in his life walk away and leaving him feeling helpless. This features one of the most badass sounding lines I’ve heard from Simpson: “Tell em’ to carve my name in the barstool baby/You know I’m going to be here a while.” The imagery of this line and the way Simpson delivers it gives it a real jolt and makes for a memorable moment.

“A Good Look” is a funky and rocking tune where Simpson cautions other artists to stop worry about looking good and worry more about crafting a good hook. Simpson solely wrote every song on the album, except for this one, which he wrote with John Prine. As soon as I found this out, I tried to figure out which parts Prine wrote and in my opinion I think he wrote the opening biblical verse, along with the chorus. It just screams Prine. Not to mention, this is the first song Simpson has made you can actually dance to. But it’s still packed with the classic imagery and depth Simpson brings with his lyrics, from the descriptive second verse to him delivering the dismissive lines I imagine are from someone at the label said to him at some point (“How you gonna eat when you’re bitin’ the hand?”). It’s a really fun song that I imagine will be a big hit live.

“Make Art Not Friends” is one of the most revealing moments on this album. Simpson appears to be drawing inspiration from his exhaustion and anger on the road touring in 2017. Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state. He sings “Never again, rather be alone,” which I interpret as him realizing the mistake he made in saying yes to touring in 2017 after he said he wouldn’t do so. Shortly after this he sings “I love saying no to all the yes men,” which seems to refer to his state post-2017 and coming to the realization that in his compromise to “play the game” with the music industry, he ultimately was the one who lost and now he’s swearing it off completely.

Simpson is conveying that he just wants to focus on music and not the people in the industry who think they have his best interests. It’s a fascinating look into his psyche after the Grammys and how it changed him. I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be. Not to mention I really enjoy the timing and placement of the synths in this song, as they come in at just the right moments to add some gravity and emotion to the lyrics.

“Best Clockmaker on Mars” is one of the hardest rockers on the album and also Simpson’s obligatory love ode to his wife that he’s had on every album. It’s also a fun singalong with head-banging guitar licks throughout, but don’t overlook one of the most heartfelt verses: “Some days I hate everything I am/But your love holds a mirror to me/Show me a love I can understand/Make sense of the world I see.” I really enjoy the sci-fi synths, as it feels appropriate on a song with Mars in the title.

The next song “All Said and Done” is another glimpse into Simpson’s mind in 2017. Again I see this as Simpson accepting blame for the anger and sense of resignation he has towards the world and his career. This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions. It’s funny how this is the second time Simpson has said an album will destroy his career (he said the same thing with Metamodern), yet I think much to his chagrin this is only going to make him more popular. Simpson said this album is “going to hell” (step four of the five steps of the journey of the soul in Christian mysticism) and this feels like his lowest point during this span.

“Last Man Standing” sees Simpson beating his chest and proclaiming himself to be the last one standing, even though his hermit mentality seems to suggest otherwise. Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.

I had trouble understanding him on every single album upon initial listens and this one is no different, which shows to me that blaming production is misplaced. The production was clear as day on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it took me longer to figure out all the lyrics on that one compared to this album. When Simpson sings sometimes he turns into a mumbling marble mouth with an even thicker accent. To quote an old Skyrim meme: It’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, it’s completely fair to criticize not being able to understand the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the production is to blame for it.

“Mercury in Retrograde” is the grand slam on this album: Simpson’s songwriting at it’s best and the sound at it’s most fun and catchy. It also reminds me of something that would have fit in perfectly on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, with it’s disco-influenced sound, the dour observation in the chorus and the biting honesty. At first I jumped to the conclusion that Simpson was taking shots other artists on this song, but I realized that’s never been his thing. Many seem to also think he’s taking aim at fans on not just this song, but other moments on this album. But again this is not consistent with his history. So I don’t know why some are interpreting the lyrics as such. No, instead it’s a boring answer: suits at labels and award shows, which George Strait to AC/DC have taken their shots at. It just ultimately makes for scathingly fun lyrics you want to jam out along with.

The closing song “Fastest Horse in Town” is that blazing, get the fuck out of town anthem to perfectly cap off SOUND & FURY. It’s Simpson’s fiery proclamation that he’s no longer going to neglect the things that matter most to him: his family and his craft. On top of that he throws in that Eminem influence he hinted at before the album, declaring himself as not the “next someone,” but the “first something.” It doesn’t touch any of the braggadocios lines on Eminem’s Kamikaze, but it’s an appropriate closing statement that recaps the hell Simpson went through to reach the conclusion he’s arrived at and who he wants to be moving forward.

SOUND & FURY from start to finish feels like one long song, as it’s both cohesive in sound and lyrics, telling several stories that tie into overarching theme of Simpson being angry at a lot of things in the world, but when it comes down to it he’s most angry at himself and what he let himself become. Each track explores the flawed thoughts and actions of a flawed man. I see a lot of people constantly saying it reminds them of ZZ Top or 80s rock, but I don’t hear this. Instead I think this sounds closer to early to mid 70s music and sounds like the eccentric, frenetic sounds of Jeff Lyne and Electric Light Orchestra meets the in-your-face, sneering lyrics of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love or hate this album, love or hate Simpson, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought and emotions went into this album. The amount of care and detail given to every aspect makes this one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2019 and yet another excellent album from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 10/10