I never thought a boy-band would turn me on to Journey, but here we are. With its piano line highly reminiscent of Journey’s “Faithfully,” One Direction’s “Steal My Girl” has sent me down an ugly Steve Perry rabbithole. But in some brilliant twist, I don’t even have to switch the album to get my early ‘80s pop-rock fix: One Direction have it covered just fine on their fourth full-length, Four, out this week.
If you haven’t followed the onetime UK X Factor finalists past their initial rise among tweens in the early part of this decade, you’ve missed a lot. I hesitate to even call them a boy-band anymore, because it discredits the musical progress they’ve made. This specific fight for musical legitimacy — transcending boy-banddom to be taken seriously — is no easy one. It usually involves pulling a Justin Timberlake (or a Nick Jonas, if we’re staying current) and striking out solo in a bold way. But the five members of One Direction —Harry, Niall, Liam, Zayn, and Louis, for the uninitiated — appear to value their collaboration, so they’ve found ways to push their sound forward together in equally bold ways over the last four years.
While pop solo stars are able to progress past the usual disdain for rookies at some point around their fourth album, experienced boy-bands like 1D remain a source of widespread shrugging, even eye-rolling. There’s just something about the vaguely Lou Pearlman-esque connotations of being an “assembled” group of young male vocalists, particularly one whose management would prefer they maintain a squeaky-clean image despite now being in their twenties. It just does not seem natural, or at the very least of interest, to a number of different demographics.
And that’s a damn shame, because One Direction have turned into a solid pop-rock band, and a lot of people who are not teenage girls would likely enjoy Four. It’s more akin to a Coldplay album (see: “Spaces,” “Stockholm Syndrome”) or one of those deceptively huge alternative radio bands (Imagine Dragons, Bastille) than No Strings Attached. At times on Four, current-day Maroon 5 makes 1D look like Van Halen.
As the 1D experts in Jezebel’s excellent chat about the band suggest, One Direction management have not exactly picked singles that are representative of the group’s sonic diversity. Four‘s “Fireproof” features Paul Simon guitar lines and some of the album’s strongest vocal harmonies. Album standout “Clouds” sounds like Phoenix if the French band wrote arena-rock choruses powered by five vocal lines and bluesy riffs, instead of by synths. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” recalls The Who before dovetailing into ’80s synth-pop with a touch of Springsteen worship, à la Bleachers.
Yes, nearly all the songs are about love, and at times the plotlines are cheesy. If that’s a dealbreaker, then a) Four may not be for you, b) most mainstream pop and rock may not be for you either. With its tale of a deceptive, gold-digging love interest that the narrator falls for anyway, “Fool’s Gold” could easily be adapted into a rom-com (seriously, isn’t this the plot of the 2001 Sigourney Weaver-Jennifer Love Hewitt movie Heartbreakers?). “18” makes me laugh, since nostalgia for a time two to three years in the past may seem like a significant amount to people who’ve put out four albums in four years and toured the world more times over. To the rest of us, a few years is nothing.
If you have been paying attention to 1D, Four feels like the natural progression of a direction that began on 2013’s Midnight Memories. To the casual fan, Midnight Memories seemed like Simon Cowell’s greatest creation reacted to the Mumford & Sons folk-pop trend that peaked the previous year, thanks to the album’s second single, “Story of My Life.” But even the high-profile accusations of plagiarism encountered by 1D during the Midnight Memories album cycle — Def Leppard and The Who — will show you that this isn’t exactly a Lumineers record. With boy-bands, isn’t it always something — some excuse to discredit them further?