Review: One Direction, Four

For the fourth November since 2011, the boys of One Direction have released a new album.
One Direction Four


As pumpkin spice season comes to a close, so approaches the holiday shopping season. Black Friday speculation and advertisements have begun their infestation, and even Christmas commercials and music are emerging from hibernation. What this also means is that it’s time for another One Direction album.

Every November since 2011, the English-Irish five-piece have come out with another record because commercially, it makes perfect sense. Their fans, primarily tween and female, may not have the means to buy the new album, but boy, wouldn’t the deluxe edition with bonus acoustic versions and limited edition posters make a great Christmas gift from mom and dad?

While this release cycle only gives 1D one year to pump out a fresh batch of formulaic earworms, that’s fine because they have a team of songwriters at their disposal. It’s financially opportunistic but potentially creatively restraining. To known money-chaser Simon Cowell, the man behind the inexplicably successful WrestleMania: The Album and the mastermind who brought the heartthrobs together, music is more inventory than art.

This is more a criticism of pop music on a larger scale than of One Direction, the current flavor of the month. But their month has lasted for most of the current decade, and doesn’t show signs of becoming bland.

Ignore factory pop prejudice and look at the facts: Their last tour brought in almost $300 million in revenue and every show was performed in front of waves of fans risking dehydration by unceasingly losing their shit. To call it the new Beatlemania would be unfair — the Fab Four had to stop touring because their music literally couldn’t be heard over their screaming audiences — but the level at which they are idolized by millions is still astounding.

But like Danny Devito, who features in the video for lead single “Steal My Girl,” the lifespan of a boyband is intense but short, despite how much hysteria surrounds them during the apex. Starting in 1992, Take That was arguably the most popular group in the UK, but their reign came to an end with their dissolution in 1995, despite their then-newest album having topped charts in over ten countries. On the other side of the Atlantic, NSYNC had a similar trajectory in the US, sitting atop the world from about 1997 to 2001 or so.

The boys of One Direction seem to realize their current model of operation is exhilarating but unsustainable, so they’re preparing for life after the fad that is themselves overstays its welcome. Take That’s Robbie Williams did the same thing, taking a stab at co-writing a track on his final album with the group to test the waters before setting out on his own. Almost 20 years later, nine of Williams’ 10 solo albums have topped the UK charts. Justin Timberlake co-wrote over half the songs on NSYNC’s swan song, Celebrity. We know how well Justin Timberlake has done since NSYNC.

Although the song quality is uneven throughout One Direction’s Four, Niall, Zayn, Louis, Liam and Harry played a part in creating most of the tracks, which is saying something for commercially desirable singers thrown together by Cowell. What’s unfortunate is that songs the group co-wrote are the weakest ones here.

The exception is the aforementioned lead single, a Journey-inspired ballad that’s catchy regardless of how much my instincts demand instant dismissal. The other slower, anthemic numbers on the album are not nearly as inspired. The instrumentation is expected and the lyrics are part of the phenomenon cleverly pointed out by Bo Burnham in “Repeat Stuff,” in which he lampoons how pop stars sing in vague, general terms to personally appeal to everybody; it’s hard to say something when you’re not saying anything.

Where Four shines is in the upbeat songs, because even if they aren’t cavalier, they’ll at least get you moving. Pardon my French, but “Girl Almighty” is even kind of good, a ray of sunny, acoustic-based pop with pleasing electric guitar flourishes that show what Best Coast might sound like Bethany Cosentino drew inspiration from the pages of Teen Vogue.

The biggest thing that Four could do for One Direction, aside from spawning a lucrative world tour and furthering their empire built on prepubescent hormones, is serve as a stepping stone. Eventually, Harry Styles and the others might have to start becoming artistically credible if they want to survive once the world’s preteens have been oversaturated with 1D and look ahead to the next shallow pop craze.

Maybe they picked Ed Sheeran’s brain when he was around writing the track “18” for this album, which would have been useful because Sheeran is an ideal scenario for the boys’ post-1D careers: a creative with mass appeal who woos females and is skilled on technical and emotional levels. The question is who of the One Direction five has the talent to thrive in life after the weight of their empire causes it to collapse on itself, and who among the group, if any of them, has the vision and the chops to set themselves apart and become the next Timberlake.

Four is a positive step in that (one) direction, but for the sake of their longevity, they better figure it out before the charms of feigning bashfulness and biting their lower lip wear out.