Heading Wherever, Together
One Direction Releases a New Album, ‘Midnight Memories’
In the current issue of Billboard, at the end of the cover feature on One Direction, there is a cooling mist of reality spritzed by, who else, Simon Cowell, the TV judge-impresario who helped Frankenstein this group into existence on the 2010 season of the British version of “The X Factor.”
Eventually, they probably will split up and maybe want to have their own careers,” he said, a statement that most likely sent shivers down the tiny spines of One Direction fans but is, of course, merely stating the obvious.
Mr. Cowell was referring to a corollary of the immutable law of boy bands: The band’s fans age, but the band generally does not.
One Direction may break that spell. Almost from the beginning, its members — Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson — have seemed older than the job required, even though they are just 19 to 21. And continuing to call One Direction a boy band is simply wrong. They play the part almost resentfully, with the mien of people who know better. They don’t dance, they’re not particularly enthusiastic, and though their disdain isn’t palpable, their self-awareness always is.
Whether this is transparent to the squealers that make up the bulk of their fan base is tough to tell. The guys are pretty, and maybe that is enough. The credibility of that theory is certainly boosted by the fact that One Direction is easily among the least musically adventurous acts on the pop charts, and among the least sonically ambitious boy bands — that phrase again — in recent memory.
“Midnight Memories” (Syco/Columbia) is its third album, and it establishes how little it takes to keep a global pop phenomenon moving. In the case of One Direction, which became a Tumblr phenomenon in the wake of its “X Factor” success, and which has had only a handful of genuine hits, not only does demand outpace supply, it may require almost no supply at all.
So it’s fine, in a way, if “Midnight Memories” is uninteresting (though it’s not as blank as the group’s last album, “Take Me Home”). It need only be amiable and keep the flame lit. Maybe the blankness is a strategy. Think of what these songs need to accomplish: They need to give each of the five men a showcase (unlike other boy bands — ahem — this one doesn’t have a blatant frontman, though Mr. Styles and Mr. Malik come close), and they need to cast a wide enough net to avoid alienating anyone already along for the ride. Unlike New Kids on the Block, or ’NSync or Take That, One Direction makes music that doesn’t feel of the moment.
The closest it comes to being on trend is the excellent single “Story of My Life,” which is a clear stepchild to Mumford & Sons’ power-folk — an odd choice for carpetbagging, though a riskless one, as opposed to opting for a dance-music or hip-hop makeover. (The sound also gets a workout on “Through the Dark.”)
What “Story of My Life” has is scale, and for a group that practically leapfrogged into arenas, scale matters. It also matters for a group comprising singers whose voices are various gradations of thin. They’re good, and sometimes better than that, but none are robust. (There’s a reason none of them made the original “X Factor” cut as solo singers.)
This album is produced largely by Julian Bunetta — he produced the better songs on “Take Me Home” — and John Ryan, who are deft in the way they create sturdy sketches that don’t ask much of the guys.
Or their lyrics, for that matter. With a couple of exceptions, this is a dimly written album. There are love songs, natch, and there are a couple of songs about the state of crazy the group lives in: “Don’t Forget Where You Belong” and the title track, with the comic lyric “People talk — ssshhhh — but we don’t listen.”
Most troubling, in a couple of places the lyrics veer toward the seedy, which is probably far more reflective of the group members’ perspective on their fame than anything else on this album. “I know you want, know you want to take it slow/But think about all the places we could go/If you give in tonight”: So go the opening bars of “Why Don’t We Go There.” On “Happily,” the message is darker (even if the music isn’t): “It’s 4 a.m. and I know that you’re with him/I wonder if he knows that I’ve touched your skin.”
(Oddly, the three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are more affecting than almost everything on the actual album, especially the stark “Half a Heart.”)
These are the sentiments of five young men yearning to breathe free, and yet, according to Billboard, One Direction has signed a new contract for an additional three albums — it’s doubling down on its future as a unit. Maybe it is betting on a few more years of evergreen demand, or on the power of inertia.
After all, it hasn’t taken much to stoke interest thus far, and One Direction seems to understand that. “Best Song Ever” is the biggest hit from this album. It’s an implicit commentary on how each generation looks for its own best song, just as all the generations before it did. The slot is always there for the taking. It almost doesn’t matter what fills it.
The guys seem to be winking in the chorus, where they sing, “I think it went ‘oh, oh, oh’/I think it went ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ ” That’s all it takes, no?
CONGRATULATIONS ONE DIRECTION
ONE DIRECTION SIGNED YET FOR 3 ALBUMS