Keely Chisholm ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
When most people think of One Direction, they think of the neatly-coiffed seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds running around a beach singing “What Makes You Beautiful.” Fast-forward three years and three albums, though, and the picture is much different.
Now we have five young men—Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson—in their early twenties making music that’s significantly less bubblegum-pop. Progressing from the puppy love-laden lyrics that made them so popular with adolescent girls, One Direction have crafted an album for both the young and the old; for both the lovestruck and the lovelorn. With a mix of power chords and acoustic picking under soaring choruses, the sound is a folk- and rock-influenced version of pop that’s at home everywhere from iHome speakers to packed stadiums.
“Steal My Girl,” the first single off of Four, opens the album with a piano chord sequence that many have compared to Journey’s “Faithfully.” With romantic but cheesy lyrics and overproduced vocals, it’s not a standout.
We don’t see the more mature sound the band have been talking about until the next song. “Ready to Run,” which might remind some of last album’s “Story of My Life,” has a feel that many have compared to Mumford and Sons. It feels hopeful and confident, possibly reflecting a new personal sureness for the boys.
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” might recall the sounds of previous albums. The poppy-ness that older fans remember from the second album is back, but this time with a bigger sound. It’s probably the most quintessential bit of arena pop on the album, well-suited for next year’s stadium tour.
Ed Sheeran, a longtime collaborator and friend of One Direction, wrote “18” for the album, and it might be one of the highlights. It’s a sweet love story, told in Sheeran’s characteristically poetic lyrics and earnestly raw vocals.
The boys take on a Beach Boys-esque sound on “Girl Almighty.” Painting the picture of a strong, charismatic woman, the way the subject is sung about is a refreshing change of pace from the way they’ve sung about girls in the past.
“Fool’s Gold” and “Night Changes” feel like a breath of air in the middle of the album. The first is a rueful song to a romantic spark that never lit, while the subject of the second is more ambiguous. It’s not fully romantic, but it’s also not quite platonic. Either way, it’s tracks like these where we get to strip away the production and hear the boys do what they are meant to—sing.
If the previous tracks were like going to sleep, then “No Control” is what happens when the next day begins. The story of the morning after, this track sees the boys lyrically breaking from their teenage innocence, much like the second album saw with “Rock Me.”
“Fireproof” is very much like “Ready to Run.” Again, it’s the combination of a more indie, folksy sound and hope-filled lyrics. It’s a paean to confidence and strength that wouldn’t have been convincing on past albums.
“Spaces” asks the big questions: “Who’s gonna be the last one to drive away? Who’s gonna be the last one to forget this place?” Reminiscent of the first album’s “Same Mistakes,” it’s a song of a love not yet lost but on its way. “Ahhs” and “ohhs” in between the verses and chorus might remind some of The xx’s “Intro.”
Perhaps one of the most obvious displays of lyrical maturity shows on “Stockholm Syndrome,” which finds the boys comparing falling in love to the feeling of being held captive. One of the numerous throwbacks to 80’s pop, it’s a new sound for One Direction and it works.
“Clouds” is an upbeat, poppy goodbye song that closes off the album with a bit of sass. It’s a nice send-off, both to a complicated significant other and to the listener.
The bonus tracks—“Change Your Ticket”, “Illusion”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and “Act My Age”—are more than just an extension of the album; we get even more stylistic variety with these four. “Change Your Ticket” sounds very much like The 1975, while “Act My Age” is part “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” and part pub song.
Lyrically, they’re past “the way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.” The band had a hand in writing almost every song on the album, bringing a new authenticity that shows in the vocals. At the core, the basic romantic feelings that have pervaded every One Direction album are still there—they’re just expressed in a new, more mature way that has better potential to reach outside their well-established fan base.
In fact, Four as a whole continues what last year’s Midnight Memories set out to start—a gradual progression in sound to a larger, perhaps older audience. And it works. Somewhere between folk-pop and and arena pop, their distinct sound is becoming clearer with this album
They’re still a boy band at heart. There’s no escaping that. But what they can escape is the typical boy band formula, and if they continue down this path, they just might extend their longevity a few more years.