The boys of One Direction are moving their sound out of the playground and into arenas with their latest album, Four—a record that seems inspired less by teenybopper pop than classic rock ’n’ roll. It’s One Direction, bigger and louder than it’s ever been before—chock full of guitar-driven anthems that will inevitably be exploding out of stadiums worldwide this summer during the band’s On The Road Again tour.
One Direction has released a new album every November since 2011—a tradition that’s become as sure as eating turkey on Thanksgiving and shopping the sales on Black Friday. With each successive project, the British quintet has fought the boy band stereotype (you’ll never see Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Niall Horan doing synchronized dancing together, at least not seriously) and pushed toward the heavier, grungier sound that characterizes Four.
Since winning The X Factor and recording Up All Night in 2011, One Direction has discovered how to evolve while retaining an element of its career-launching debut’s polished pop vibe. The band realized the key variable to its success early on—one direction doesn’t necessarily mean one sound. Genres can and should be broken, according to these boys, who’ve wreaked their energetic and brilliantly calculated havoc on the confines of both pop and rock with their last several records. Take Me Home (2012) had “Rock Me,” built on the infamous stomp clap of Queen’s 1977 hit, Midnight Memories (2013) had the Van Halen-esque “Little Black Dress,” and Four piles on the power chords, riffs, and licks even harder than the band’s first three LPs combined.
The most obvious stars of the album are its first single “Steal My Girl” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” two tracks whose resonating keys and flickering guitars take the spotlight in an undeniably Journey-like sort of fashion. Making the piano intro of “Steal My Girl’” feel just like “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a smart move for One Direction—because honestly, who doesn’t love that song? It may never be as timeless as the 1980s classic, but it’s just as catchy and deliberately grounds Four in its retro rock influences.
With its new album, One Direction has clearly tried to give its lyrical content the same street cred as its music. Sure, the boys are still singing about the usual tropes of 20-somethings—love, lust, and youthful recklessness in one form or another—but they’re doing so in a way that makes them seem more Rolling Stones than Backstreet Boys. Lines from the Ed Sheeran-penned ballad “18” definitely add a touch of sentimentality to Four (I wanna love like you made me feel / When we were 18)”, but even those lyrics don’t overshadow One Direction’s efforts to express its sexuality more maturely. “Don’t play innocent / I know what you meant / When you said you’d come over,” croons Malik on “Change Your Ticket”—a song about spending all week in a hotel room bed with a girl. The track isn’t terribly explicit, but even the band knows it’s far from “innocent.”
While Four’s upbeat stompers (“Girl Almighty” and “Act My Age”) are sure strong points on the album, its slow songs seem to be more hit-or-miss. “Night Changes,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Ready to Run”—which sounds pretty identical to 2013’s folksy “Story of My Life”—are by no means bad tracks, but on a record of definitive rock anthems, they do struggle to stand out. “Fools Gold” and “Fireproof” are the album’s single exceptions, wielding notable control over pace and space and building from mellow openings to bold crescendos, which sound expansive enough to fill even the largest concert venues.
One Direction has obviously done its homework for Four. At this point in their career, the boys know what works and what doesn’t—they’ve added more rock to their songs, subtracted some cheesy immaturity from their image, and multiplied the dynamism that personifies their sound. They’ve taken control of their music—helping to write 12 of the album’s 14 tracks, defining themselves as five distinct vocalists, and actively looking to the past to determine the direction of their future. The final result of all the band’s efforts is Four—which has literally got some of One Direction’s best songs, ever.
Featured Image Courtesy of Columbia Records