When the cheering stops, pay for more cheering. It’s what record companies do, even in this age of corporate thrift, and that’s why being in a boy band is the shit. As soon as the label recoups its advances, you and your mates underwrite your senescent years with the songwriting credits that your backers now allow you to claim. And according to the evidence, the credits matter this time for One Direction: On Midnight Memories, I can hear what influences make them beautiful. Maybe Louis Tomlinson — whose name dominates the credits — has a hair-metal playlist in which Def Leppard dominates. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
Which is a relief. In 2011, I couldn’t believe friends preferred 1D’s inaugural hit “What Makes You Beautiful” to the Wanted’s “Glad You Came,” which put over its brain-dead single-entendre with an accordion and the dudes’ slavering 1-900-LUST vocals. But now, Harry Styles, AJ McLean, Lance Bass, Jon Knight, and Joe Jonas stack their harmonies thicker and louder, and hire guitarists for power chordage to match the hardness of their crotches and the softness in their brains. They’ve got the hard part covered with the “Pour Some Sugar on Me” rewrite that is their third album’s title track, the soft with the Mumfordized “Something Great.” This schizophrenia creates a vertiginous listen. Midnight Memories struggles between appeasing the girl fans who want Harry to twinkle through “Story of My Life” and begging those same girl fans to wait in the boys’ dressing rooms.
To a point, the audacity takes your breath away. On the bonus tracks “Alive” and “Half a Heart,” the boys ask the doctor to find out what’s ailing them, and when they meet the girl lucky enough to be the right receptacle, she assures them, “Don’t look back, it’s alright,” after which they have lunch by the river serenaded by plucked guitars. And these songs are back to back. On “Diana,” they get what made those early-’80s Rick Springfield hits so indelible, using guitars and keening choral vocals to rescue lines like “I speak a different language but I hear your call.” Horndogs with hearts of Euros, One Direction don’t waste time on shading — why should they? Their audience doesn’t, or their perception of their audience, certainly doesn’t.
As long as Midnight Memories offers chorus after chorus of Gary Glitter-style fodderstompf, it sounds like the best boy-band album since No Strings Attached. With inspired juxtapositions like early-’60s twang guitar and parade-ground beats — and oh-oh-ohs set to a Killers hook on “Happily” — it even suggests a way out of the EDM cul-de-sac in which pop finds itself. As long as they’re on, these are the Best Songs Ever.