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Review: One Direction Hide in Plain Sight From Boy-Band History With ‘Four’

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SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 17, 2014
Label: Columbia/Syco

Four might seem like a boring title, if not an outright cliché at this point, for a new One Direction album. In fact, it’s actually an incredibly bold name, because it draws attention to the fact that most groups in their spot would be smart to avoid at all costs: This is, remarkably enough, the fourth One Direction album. Simply put, boy bands don’t make it to their fourth albums: They either break up first (‘N Sync), take so long that the moment’s passed by their return (Backstreet Boys), or try an awkward new direction that fast-tracks them towards irrelevance (New Kids on the Block). If you get to your fourth album as a boy band, it’s probably because nobody heard your first record (Jonas Brothers), because the formula for these things is basically inflexible: You get one album as the hot new thing, one album as world-conquering superstars, one album as popular-but-uncomfortably-maturing adults trying to prove you’re “more than just a boy band,” and then you’re out.

With Four, One Direction make no secret of their attempts to buck this trend. History may not be on their side, but one crucial element is: Constant forward momentum. One Direction have never gone away long enough for the world to move on without them, recording one new album a year for four straight years. (By comparison, ‘N Sync took about three years between the releases of their first two albums.) Still, you can only fight history for so long before you come crashing down to earth. If 1D wanted to escape boy-band gravity and stay relevant, they’d need a damn good plan. Listening to Four, it appears that the group does indeed have one: They’re hiding in the 1980s.

The really interesting point of comparison between One Direction and their since-vanquished rivals in the Wanted is that on paper, it was the latter that was by far the more contemporary of the two groups. The Wanted were the ones who incorporated then-trendy EDM beats into singles like “Chasing the Sun” and “I Found You,” they were the ones who name-checked Rihanna on a single and guest-starred on a Pitbull album. One Direction, on the other hand, never had any interest in dance or hip-hop instead, they moved increasingly backwards into classic rock territory, biting the Who on “Best Song Ever” and Def Leppard on the title track to their third album, 2013’s Midnight Memories. At a time when rock was at its commercially weakest, 1D called on the genre’s back catalog to keep them current, and remarkably enough, it worked: Memories had the group’s best first-week sales yet, while the Wanted’s third album barely cracked the U.S. top 20. 

On Four, the group doubles down on those mainstream-rock allusions, to the point where Billboard now calls them the “World’s Greatest Classic-Rock Band That Doesn’t Really Play Instruments and Wasn’t Alive in the 1980s.” It barely takes seconds for the first reference to appear on the album: Opener “Steal My Girl” begins with a piano riff clearly inspired by, if not outright stolen from, Journey’s power ballad standard “Faithfully.” It’s just the beginning: “Stockholm Syndrome” borrows the groove and a little bit of the chorus melody from Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Fireproof” takes its bass lead from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and most improbably of all, “Girl Almighty” apes the chunk-ka-chunk shuffle and vocal/guitar call-and-response chorus of Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child.” You could descend into madness trying to pinpoint what decades-old songs all of the riffs and rhythms of this LP remind you of.

But you know what? Those might be the four best songs on the album, and they’re certainly four of the best songs of One Direction’s career. They’re intoxicating, adrenalizing, and undeniably visceral blasts of old-school pop/rock, furthered by the group’s commitment to patently ridiculous lyrics like, “Let’s have another toast to the girl almighty / Let’s pray we stay young, stay made of lightning” and “I know they’ll be coming to find me soon / But my Stockholm syndrome is in your room.” The production is denser than these guys have ever had, with layers of synths, guitars, and more handclaps than you’ve heard since the days of acid house, and vocals deployed in clever arrangements of backing “ah”s and punctuating “WOAH!”s. The writing/production team of Julian Bunetta and John Ryan has slowly been taking over for 1D since 2012’s Take Me Home, and the group is wise to let them have near-complete control here, making Four the most consistent-sounding Direction album yet.

You wouldn’t think a pop-based boy band would succeed going so far back into the MOR archives  mostly because it’s hard to think of one that’s done it before  but it actually makes sense here. Classic rock, especially the predominantly ’80s strain that 1D favors, is directly in tune with the kind of anthemic, blockbusting, over-the-top jams that they’ve been making since “What Makes You Beautiful.” The ’80s were generally the last time that mainstream rock was allowed to be as effusive and free of irony and self-awareness as pop, so when One Direction names one of their rave-ups “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” they’re not just referencing the Whitney Houston chart-topper, they’re calling back to an era when such questions could be asked without an accompanying eye roll. It’s a good fit for the boys.

The album’s rock-indebted tracks are such delirious fun that by comparison, the ballads can be a bit of a killjoy. You might hope that the group’s current musical fixations would lead them to write a lighter-waver or two à la “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” but no such luck instead, the slow songs are kind of gloopy and unremarkable, occupying a space in between pop and R&B that doesn’t feel particularly satisfying as either. “Spaces” gets some credit for being the most adult relationship song the group has performed (“Who’s gonna be the first one to compromise? / Who’s gonna be the first one to set it all on fire?”), and “18” is fun if you try to picture it as the older-brother answer song to the current challengers-to-the-throne 5 Seconds of Summer’s song of the same name, but mostly, you just want to get back to the guitar-heavy turbo-pop.

Another notable comparison: the other major, modern-day artist who’s made a big deal of invoking the ’80s lately is Taylor Swift. Her recently released 1989 reaffirmed the commercial viability of Reagan-era-inspired pop songs, but Swift’s vision of the decade is a much dreamier and more romantic one than 1D’s, which comes off as a little bit meatheaded by comparison. That’s not a bad thing, though both artists’ interpretations of the ’80s are correct in their own way, reflective of different musical perspectives and filtered through their separate sensibilities. The same thirtysomething who was transported back to listening to Debbie Gibson in her bedroom by 1989 might listen to Four and relive hearing her older brother singing along to Bryan Adams a room over. It’s enough to make you wonder if Swift’s former relationship with Direction member Harry Styles was largely based on their mutual affection for VH1 Classic.

Will taking refuge in classic rock be enough to save One Direction from the three-album tar pit that’s claimed many boy bands before them? Early returns are promising, as forecasts claim that Four will sell over 420,000 copies in its first week, a healthy chunk less than Midnight Memories’ 546k, but still more than anyone else this year except for You Know Who. The question of whether they can find a permanent safe haven is less certain if they pretend to be Bon Jovi for long enough, will we forget that they started out as New Kids on the Block? Probably not, but hell, no boy band has ever made it this far and still managed to sell this much and sound this good. Don’t stop believin’.