Sunday, November 9, 2014

Four | One Direction


★★★☆☆

In the late 1990s, boy bands could be found for a dime a dozen. Prominently, the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, and 98° skyrocketed up the charts and left giant footprints in pop culture. Following a boy band drought during the majority of the 2000s, the demand for the teen-heartthrobs was resurrected by five-piece pop-rock group One Direction in 2011. In traditional boy band fashion, the members of One Direction and their record label leaders have been in a race against time to churn out as many albums as possible while the boys are still young, compatible, and most importantly, profitable. Four marks their fourth studio album in four years, but the content on this set allows the group to stray the farthest they've ever been from the definition of a boy band sonically.

This album's era opened with the release of a buzz track, "Fireproof," and the lead single, "Steal My Girl." Both tracks introduce listeners to the band's new exploration into an indie-rock sound that is sent into a tailspin by subtle influences of both '80s and modern pop. The former track is led by a guitar line and carries a pleasant blend of light rock and folk that would make John Mayer proud, while the latter turns the band towards the aforementioned '80s influences with highlighted piano and guitar stems. "Steal My Girl" is perhaps the strongest track on the album, with a unique sound, killer melody line, and the charming lyrical spark that is normally associated with the band. Sultry '80s influences also shine through on "Stockholm Syndrome" as the boys sing, "Baby, look what you've done to me / Baby, you got me tied down / Baby, I'll never leave if you keep holding me this way."

The folk John Mayer-esque sound doesn't go away, either: most of the cuts on Four are led by acoustic guitar stems. However, the expansion on those basic guitars isn't as extreme as I had hoped. Two tracks that definitely could have packed a stronger punch are "Night Changes," a steady track headed for adult contemporary success, and "Fool's Gold," a track that could easily be masked as a ballad from The Script. "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and "No Control" aim for a harder-hitting sound, but sonically come off as re-works of "What Makes You Beautiful" with the boys' shouted choruses layered over a pop-rock spin. The combination of old and new sounds are well-balanced on "Ready To Run," but it gives a very strong nod towards the band's own "Story of My Life." Another happy medium between 'too bland' and 'too boy band' is found on "Spaces." The song carries a subdued instrumental track and allows the vocals of each member to shine.  

The band openly collaborated with multiple notable acts for the material on Four and it is clear that the boys are easily swayed by their influences. English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has collaborated with the band before, but once again was called upon to pen "18." The song's lyrics glimmer of the melodramatic handiwork of Sheeran while the boys succeed in emulating Sheeran's vocal style. (Sheeran has retained his native accent in his professional recordings, while the guys of One Direction normally drop their own, spare the vocals on "18.") A horde of other collaborators were rumored to be working with the band on this album, including indie-rock group The 1975 and rock band Good Charlotte. Both groups clearly helped the effort to nudge One Direction into the world of pop-rock, but with their voices fitting so well in the genre, perhaps this was the type of group One Direction was meant to be all along.

While many bands strategically feature one lead vocalist that could effectively jump to solo stardom if needed, there has never been a clear highlighted member of One Direction. This fact holds true for the material on Four. An equal blend of voices is a good sign for the quintet as a whole, but not as promising for the members individually if the group were ever to disband and solo careers ensued. Four years ago, I would have never guessed that the five singing little tykes that visually seemed to be fresh out of middle school would grow into young men that allowed their music to mature with them. With their influences in tow, the band is slowly yet effectively developing from a traditional boy band into a pop-rock group that fits somewhere on the spectrum between Maroon 5 and The 1975, while also continuing to stay true to the appeal that first skyrocketed them into stardom. 

Four will be released on November 17, 2014 under Columbia Records.

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