The fourth studio album from the overnight boy-band wonder One Direction, “FOUR,” will undoubtedly be met with laughter in “sophisticated” musical circles. Released on Nov. 17, the band’s most recent attempt will just as certainly be met with adulation and excitement among its slew of adolescent and pre-pubescent fans.
This polarization can leave the people in the middle in a strange place. Without blatant hatred or unconditional love for One Direction, many listeners find themselves contending not with the public persona of the band, but with the music itself. It is typical for groups like One Direction to be relegated to the realm of tweeny boppers and to be seen as capitalizing on the irrational and ephemeral desires of the public, but there is clearly something to be said about the staying power of One Direction. The question nevertheless remains: Why is it still around? Is it a function of its image? Or, more unbelievably, is its music actually good?
The answer is both. Though “FOUR” is not nearly as infectious or surprising as the group’s 2013 release, “Midnight Memories,” the album holds its own as a musical statement. One Direction has managed to remain interesting by constantly forging ahead into new musical territory. Although their tracklist is profoundly predictable (ballad, single, ballad, single, weird wanna-be-Beatles-jam), the group has been blessed with talented songwriters who know exactly where to take risks and where to play it safe. Including some pounding pop, some (surprisingly) genuine ballads and, of course, infectious single after single, “FOUR” manages to satiate both the ferocious hordes of tween girls demanding generic pop and One Direction’s more adult and experienced fans.
What seems to be holding One Direction back, however, is the album’s intense over-production and clearly manufactured public image. The group, which seems poised to burst out of its relegated role, has been hindered time and time again by over-production and poor management. Unlike former Disney channel star Nick Jonas, who broke out of his clean-cut family band, The Jonas Brothers, to make “real” music, One Direction seems stuck in a rut. “FOUR,” while it contains some promising musical moments, is still so over-produced that many sickly-sweet sounds threaten to stick to the insides of listeners’ ears. Unfortunately for One Direction, this sonic situation — in terms of production and style — is certainly disappointing.
One Direction has managed to produce a few notable tracks on “FOUR” regardless. The opening song, “Steal My Girl,” on this mammoth 16-track album, is a favorite. With enough charisma for top 40 radio play and an interesting instrumental track, “Steal My Girl” sees One Direction at its best. “Night Changes,” the primary single off of the album, is a fun, flirty but — ultimately — cheap track. Though definitely contagious, it grows tired after the first chorus. “Stockholm Syndrome” is somewhat of an aberration on “FOUR.” Harkening back to the early and easy pop of the 1950s, “Stockholm Syndrome” feels silly at best, and completely out of place at worst.
One track in particular seems to perfectly embody the state of One Direction. “Act My Age,” the last track on “FOUR,” is an easy rumpus with simple lyricism. An ode to staying young, “Act My Age” manages to explain why the group is so stunted. Though the music is good and attractive, this song sees the group of technically adult men sinking uneasily into the naivete of adolescence. This leaves One Direction is in a singular and uncomfortable position. Ultimately, in order for One Direction to break free from its pop prison, it simply needs to grow up.