Once a band of five strangers put together by Simon Cowell on the X Factor in 2010, One Direction has made their name within the music industry indestructible — four years and four albums later. With the world at their feet and their careers in their pockets, the 20- to 22-year-olds have seized the opportunity to make a concerted effort to dig out their own sound and develop their musicality and songwriting skills for their newest album “Four.”
“Four” dropped Nov. 17, and within hours of hitting shelves and iTunes, it hit No. 1 in 146 countries. Albeit a sudden rocket to the top, the album was No. 1 in 67 countries before it was even released. How? With the one-track teaser of “Fireproof,” which set the tone for the album: a blend of indie ballads, folk undertones, arena rock and finger-snapping beats.
The album seems like it can either float over a candlelit room or fill an entire arena, none which really scream “Biggest pop band in the world.” “Steal My Girl,” an upbeat track with a catchy melody that can appease any guilty pleasure, fits for their first single. Surprising? Not at all. It introduces a subtle change without a radical response, with the contrived notion that the band still relies on the traditional boy-band sound. Their second single, “Night Changes,” (out Nov. 21) has a completely different sound of a starry-night keyboard intro and lyrics illustrating growth and change — establishing just what “Four” was set out to do.
“Four” has not only shattered the boy-band archetype that many have associated with each member of the “What Makes You Beautiful” band, but also showcases their work beyond bubblegum pop. Tracks such as “No Control” and “Stockholm Syndrome” can easily be said to be the rebels, depicting a ravenous sex drive and — how Harry Styles himself described “Stockholm Syndrome” as — “about a nympho.”
It makes one question how a band who once sang, “We’re like na na na / Then we’re like yeah yeah yeah” could sing “This time I’m ready to run / Escape from the city and follow the sun / Cause I wanna be yours / Don’t you want to be mine? / I want to get lost in the dark of the night” (“Ready to Run”). Their first album had writers such as Iain James, Savan Kotecha, James Murray and many more, whereas “Four” had Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik and Styles. The five members took complete creative control.
Tomlinson barely advanced beyond backup vocals in their first two albums, but has really leveled up here. Writing nine out of 16 tracks on the album, Tomlinson has collaborated with the likes of Wayne Hector and Ed Sheeran. His reedy tenor is prominent in “No Control,” punching out the chorus equivalent of a pelvic thrust. Horan was also seen as a minor character but flexes an appealing growl on that first verse of the arena rock song, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and conveys a voice that sounds like honey dripping off a spoon in the soft ballad of “Fool’s Gold.” Styles offsets those soothing voices with a rocky tone belted out in almost every verse, especially after the ‘80s electric guitar opening of “Clouds.” Payne and Malik possess ranges from angelic falsetto to deep bass, which are conveyed in various tracks such as the fun, woman-worshiping track “Girl Almighty.”
The last track on the deluxe edition “Act My Age” pays homeage to Horan’s Irish roots. Putting listeners in a pub in the middle of Ireland and slamming a horde of beers in the air while chanting the lyrics about never growing up, One Direction makes you know they are still those boys from the UK.
Exceeding expectations of fans and onlookers, “Four” has raised the bar for One Direction. It has been dubbed as their best work yet, and with a new sound established, it is sure to catch the attention of those who avoid boy bands like the plague.
Rating: 5 stars