When explaining One Direction, the quickest way you can get your out-of-touch uncle to recognize who you’re talking about is the go-to: “You know the ones, the British ones? They sing that you’re beautiful song?” *Sings a few off-key notes from “What Makes You Beautiful,” the 2011 hit that catapulted One Direction into the United States in 2012 and into international super stardom. Harry Styles was around
12 18 when it happened and the oldest member, Louis Tomlinson, couldn’t even drink legally stateside. A lot has changed, for the better.
FOUR greets you with the first single off of the album, “Steal My Girl,” and it’s an immediate and obvious switch from the One Direction some people expect. But should anyone really be surprised? This was a group that no one thought would make it four years, let alone to a fourth album. “The biggest boy band” – with that title comes rumors and intense pressure and the ever-present THEY’RE BREAKING UP headline. What they’ve done instead is grow up and take control.
Midnight Memories was the first step towards their own sound, and now, FOUR lists Tomlinson and Liam Payne as writers on an impressive nine out of sixteen track listings, with the other members rounding out another four songs they contributed to, leaving three songs on the entire album that had no contribution from a One Direction member. In four years, they’ve gone from being given “bubblegum pop” that they “sort of, kind of” helped to write, to taking creative control over not only their album, but the exact melodies, harmonies, and lyrics that go into it. They work with a professional team, with this album listing familiar and celebrated co-writers and producers on every track. In comparison, the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC wrote or cowrote less than 20 songs from all of their albums combined. And in total, both groups were nominated for 15 Grammys.
Some reviews have called FOUR “the wrong direction” while others have heralded it as an “extended winning streak.” It’s easy to call it wrong when it’s different and it’s easy to praise it when it’s not what you’re used to from this group of 20 – 22 year olds, famous for singles like “One Thing” and “Live While We’re Young.” The album brings a California cool vibe with it, most defined in “Fireproof“, with 70’s influences and hints of the Eagles and Rolling Stones being sampled in almost every song. The harmonies work, the lyrics aren’t stupid, but it’s the melodies that keep FOUR flowing. Every track weaves effortlessly with any other on the album by incorporating soft-rock tones and heavy blends of perfectly placed guitar picks and symbol crashes accompanied by equally powerful drum beats and reverbs of voices and beats and an all around build in every song that goes straight to the top and crashes back down gleefully. This album was engineered to echo off the stars above the stadiums One Direction is now more than comfortable playing in, sync up with your heartbeat and/or tears, and to accompany born-to-be-a-rock-star Styles’ infamously timed body jerks.
As a fan of classic rock myself (not a day goes by without me playing the Eagles’ “Those Shoes” at least 10 times), this album speaks volumes in the direction (lol) that One Direction has every right to head in – reaching far back into the classics to create their own beachy sound, instead of the typical same-rhythm, different-artist tunes across the Top 40 – and bleeds out all of their creative juices. You can literally feel how personal and new this album is through every guitar tweak or thought out lyric. It’s edgy, but smooth; it’s rock, but also pop; it’s blues-y, but filled with bangers that’ll have you slamming your steering wheel as you soar up and down with the songs. If you listen to this without picturing yourself in one of those “leaked light, dusty, 1977-filter, slow motion videos filled with 1960’s blue convertibles and girls tossing their extra long hair as they drive and laugh and drink as the sun sets and rises” (seriously, the beginning of “No Control” always has me envisioning myself in a 70’s style house putting on records and dancing in my underwear but I’m about 10 pounds skinnier) or just getting in your car to drive, baby, drive…well, stop, because that’s what you’re doing and you’re lying if you say otherwise. There’s songs meant to echo off of every skyscraper within miles of the band and songs built to hush all 72,003 people in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Songs made to prove to you that they’re not just a bunch of boys off the X Factor anymore; they’re the real deal and they might just be sticking around for a while.
My favorite part about this album is that it puts Niall Horan and Tomlinson front and center. Clawing their way past whoever put them on almost solely background vocals in Up All Night, they’ve got a point to prove – and they do so with gusto. Horan’s husky growl opens “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” with shock and awe and with it, silences anyone who’s ever doubted him or his talents, while feel good “Change Your Ticket” highlights his ability to sound a little sweeter, a little more innocent. Not to mention his love for guitar has been a fan favorite since day one, with him being the only member to play an instrument throughout a concert. His vocals have gone from Justin Bieber-esque and boppy, for lack of a better and not made up word, to stone cold heartthrob and it’s impossible to imagine some of their most rock-based tunes without him carrying the power bridges from verse to chorus or delivering the necessary, mouth-watering throatiness his voice has come to carry. Tomlinson has proven to be easily the most versatile of the group – hear me out. Zayn Malik is often touted as “the most talented” and that’s fair, with his clear high notes and effortlessly sexy croon often interjecting just at the height of the songs to remind you of One Direction’s golden egg, but Tomlinson is what defines the songs on FOUR. If you want rock ‘n’ roll, lean on Louis for echoing harmonies that’ll have you screaming at the top of your lungs too. If you want sweet, it’s Louis using his ability to create a soft dynamic to carry the song from one build to another, such is the way in “Clouds.” And if you want it to go back to being a little bit rock, a little bit pop, it’s back to Louis, whose voice is a little higher than the rest of the boys and can hit that almost hiccup effect, with the gentle whine in the back of his throat proving he can make simple, but effective, changes that have the ability to define the entire feel of the song. Louis’ voice is different – not the gruff and low baritones his bandmates share, but a tenor that takes a moment of getting used to before realizing, “hey, this is good. That guy makes this song. Wait, holy shit, what would this song even be without him?” He’s relaxed and cooler than you on “Stockholm Syndrome,” an absolute smash that in my uneducated opinion would be a game-changing single. Most importantly, though, he absolutely murders “No Control” – while the other boys sound incredible, there’s something about Louis’ vocal abilities on this one that lets him go absolutely crazy with the chorus and backgrounds, with so much force behind his voice you literally think he’s going to come out of your earphones and sing it with just as much passion right in front of you to make you forget every snub he’s ever received on any track. “No Control“ is Louis’ personal revenge, a hit back to anyone that ever said he didn’t belong. Zayn Malik gets his necessary high notes in on guitar-heavy “Ready to Run” and “Girl Almighty,” just to let you know he can do that and he will do that and they will always have a spot for you to fall to your knees over it because your heart has literally stopped. He has absolutely nothing to prove, as he’s been given the chance to flex his vocal skills since Up All Night, and is only getting better, like a fine wine. There’s really not much detail I can go into, other than that you may as well just jump on the wagon now because as soon as you hear him sing, you will literally see God. I don’t know how he does it either. His voice is honestly one of those things you have to hear for yourself, I have tried to describe it and do no justice – the ultimate ingredient in a band, the mysterious one, who carries more talent in his pinky thumb than your entire friend group could accumulate in a year.
Liam Payne, once known as “the one who always gets the first verse,” lets his voice explore with a little more edge on this album, keeping the choruses and his verses smooth with an impressive range that takes him from sweet and smooth crooner on “Night Changes” to leading the way on “Illusion” with his swift ability to go back and forth from Liam Payne to Justin Timberlake and back again to sweet Liam Payne, the one whose X Factor audition is the only one still impressive four years later. (No offense boys but…yeah.) He’s always been a strong vocal component, often the one holding it down on the chorus or verses and keeping the song on track while the other boys peel off into harmonies and wild interjections, and has begun branching his talents out to songwriting, creating a dynamic duo between him and Tomlinson to bring forward “Midnight Memories” (Midnight Memories), “Change Your Ticket” and “Clouds.” Which speaking of, his leadership in vocals on the latter two and the way he turns his voice into something to present to the heavens on a silver platter is incredible in that it’s almost surprising, until you’re reminded he’s been able to switch his voice from R&B, to pop, to rock, to even beatboxing since the very beginning.
Horan gets his long-awaited spotlight with Irish-influenced tune “Act My Age,” where his voice is pretty much the only recognizable one and his Irish roots are prevalent after every verse. One Direction’s number one, fan favorite writer/producer, Julian Bunetta (notably award-winning writer on hits “Story Of My Life” and “Best Song Ever”), told a younger fan questioning the song on Twitter that “one day when you get a little older you will understand why it’s so good.” And it’s true. The reaction to the banger between older and younger fans is drastically different, with the 18+ crowd calling for a night out and understanding the song’s “live, love, party” theme while the “hasn’t quite tasted a beer or life yet” crowd is left a little more puzzled. In fact, that theme is largely prevalent throughout the entire album, as the boys flex their overage muscles and show the world they’re adults, thank you very much. Ed Sheeran, who can’t help but write epic slow jams like Take Me Home‘s “Little Things” and Up All Night‘s “Moments,” lends his writing to “18,” resulting in one of the absolute best love songs One Direction has delivered. Seriously, it’s perfect.
Of course, there’s still Harry m*^%@#f!&ing Styles, who is equal parts raw talent, cheeky school boy, and natural born rock star. Delivering fan melting, stadium-perfect picks “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “Stockholm Syndrome” he proves he’s not just the playboy act he’s known for in the media and that his talents go deeper than a makes-your-knees-tremble voice. Boy can write a song. Boy can write a knees-weak, heart-out-of-your-chest, screaming-along-the-lyrics banger. He’s really hit his groove with FOUR, with his ruggedly hoarse vocals creating perfect overlays with the other members and becoming something of a rock-grenade for the faster songs, making them sound a little more rebellious just through the force he puts behind every word, while teasing you with that smooth, smokers’ jazz voice on the slower medleys. Among all of the rumors about him, it’s often forgotten that he’s not a manufactured Hollywood pop star – he’s a budding rock star, Mick Jagger 2.0, and he’s bursting at the seams with talent. Even more impressive qualities include being the one with the strongest ability to match Malik’s heaven-bred prowess and can almost rival his bandmate’s harmonies. (If you’ve made it this far through my ramblings, I’m impressed and almost done.) I’d like to petition to take the “boy” off of their “boy band” moniker. Can you still be a boy band when none of you are even in your teens? I don’t think so. Young Man Band doesn’t have a good ring to it, so maybe we should just call it like it is – a band. They’re a band. They may not play their own instruments, but their talents have surpassed every other boy band in history, even The Beatles, and they’ve even broken their own record of debuting #1 three times…by debuting at #1 four times. They are breaking records and charting new waters, yet receiving the same criticisms they got when they were fresh off of X Factor – “talentless, manufactured, boy band, bubblegum pop.” If you think this is bubblegum, please direct yourself to, like, an Ausitn Mahone track or old school Justin Bieber and then let me know if anything from this album sounds like it. They’re adults. FOUR is an ode to fans that are their age who have stuck around despite the girls they sometimes don’t see eye to eye with, and it’s a direct shot to anyone who thinks they’re just another group of guys trying to sing and be pretty and wear the same outfits. You could describe this album as “SHOTS FIRED” and it would be accurate. They sing about sex – not in those words, but still – and drinking and falling in love and and having your heart broken and just generally being young and in your 20’s and they’re doing so with songs that’ll make you cry and songs that they’re ripping off their shirts to and screaming WHO LOVES YA, BABY?! for Jesus Christ Himself to get up and groove to with perfectly timed fireworks and bad jokes.
Listen, if the former president of my sorority from FRESHMAN YEAR who has graduated college and is in grad school (I heart you, Lauren, own it girl), is attending concerts and tagging me in everything on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and matching my frantic texts because this new album is just too much to handle, everyone should be. I can understand why it’s hard for some people who think they’re “grown ups” or “indie” or “cool,” to let themselves get into something that’s not an obscure artist you found in the literal darkest corner of Spotify, but guess what? I wear all black; I listen to Banks and Theophilus London and Halsey; I hate literally everyone that isn’t me or like three of my friends, depending on the day; I roll my eyes at least 100 times a day, and I have tattoos, all of which makes me cooler by Pinterest and Tumblr standards, and I’m still stanning One Direction after two years. Because they’re good and they just keep getting better. It’s nice to know I’ve been around since Up All Night, but you could join and I’ll catch you up.
If you don’t believe me, listen to the below tracks on Spotify or whatever you use if you aren’t mainstream and use something else (ok, truth be told, I like Beats Player infinitely better), and then stop telling yourself you don’t like One Direction, just because it’s One Direction.
Talent breeds talent. Talent doesn’t just go away. And “lack of talent” certainly doesn’t become the #7 most highest-grossing tour of all time nor does it debut with 400,000+ sales (in case you didn’t know, no one buys anymore – Coldplay held the 2014 record with 383,000 sales in May and we won’t go into Taylor Swift’s sales, because it’s an anomaly in record sales due to her album roll-out stemming from one of the most impressive promo efforts in years).
Or, just look up, “I don’t like One Direction, but” on Twitter to see everyone who’s “cool” like you giving credit where credit is due. And also, please write an album that hits #1 in 100 countries in 24 hours before you tell me what talent is. I’m no music expert nor do I have any talents of my own, but I can read and compare numbers.
Don’t sleep on my top 5:
- Clouds (#12)
- Change Your Ticket (#13)
- Stockholm Syndrome (#11)
- Where Do Broken Hearts Go (#3)
- Fool’s Gold (#6)
xoxo Katy. Buy FOUR on iTunes today!