Thursday, November 21, 2013

album review: 'midnight memories' by one direction

There comes a time in every boy band's 'evolution' that they want to take their brand in a different direction from the typical pre-packaged pop music that made them stars. They might want to come across as darker, or edgier, or experiment with new instrumental directions or styles. It's often the first tentative step towards artistic freedom, and it's also the step that tends to either make or break boy bands. 

Let's consider the 90s boy bands and for an example, we'll talk about N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys. The latter band decided to go in a darker direction with Black & Blue, which arguably handled the transition better by opting to stick to the pop template and just play with a darker tone and energy, and, for the most part, it worked. But then again, it would take the Backstreet Boys five years to create another album, and by that point they switched genres towards adult contemporary and pop rock. The much bleaker story comes from N'Sync, who jumped onto the slick R&B bandwagon with Celebrity in 2011 - and then imploded. They went on hiatus and since Justin Timberlake's solo career took off, they never reunited, but I place most of the blame on that final album, mostly because it was only a half-hearted step towards a genre into which the band was an awkward fit. Note the difference between the two bands here: one stuck within the same genre but changed the tone, the other switched genres and fell apart.

So what should we expect from One Direction, the mega-selling boy band titan that currently rules the hearts of teenage girls everywhere? Honestly, I don't know what to expect, because having listened through both of their previous albums and watched that godawful movie (which only notable for wasting Morgan Spurlock's talent as a director), I still don't have a feel for the unique personalities behind the band. I guess some could make the argument that Harry Styles is going to become the Justin Timberlake and use One Direction as his N'Sync, but I find that hard to believe given Timberlake was at least a potent songwriter on his own and Styles doesn't really have that solo songwriting presence (both Liam and Louis have more songwriting credits). 

The other big problem is that none of these kids have ever impressed me with raw personality or charisma or talent in the way Justin Timberlake did, and while I can now tell them apart, I have yet to detect enough vocal distinctiveness to determine personalities outside of 'the cute one' in the boy band template. Yeah, it's time for full disclosure, before going into this album, I've never liked One Direction. Their harmonies are bare-bones at best, their instrumentation and production (easily the best element of their material) can lack flavour at points, and their lyrics are godawful. I don't need to link The Colbert Report's dissection of 'What Makes You Beautiful' or the seduction-through-insult methodology behind 'Little Things', all of these lyrics make One Direction come across as pickup artists who target their material at the most vulnerable parts of the psyches of their teenage fanbase. And while I won't deny it works, it doesn't come across as romantic or authentic to me, because the material is so calculated and the band is devoid of unique personality between members. I'm not going to deny that The Backstreet Boys and N'Sync used a lot of the same formula, but at least the Backstreet Boys made 'The Call' and 'Perfect Fan' and 'Larger Than Life', and N'Sync made 'Pop' and 'Bye Bye Bye' and both bands built their brand on differentiations between the members both in sound and in style. And frankly, One Direction has neither, which made me think at first Midnight Memories might be a step in the wrong direction for the band. If they're going for pop rock the same way N'Sync went for R&B, they might be in a world of trouble. Was I right?

Yeah, I kind of was. Here's the funny thing, though: before listening to the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, I was all set to say this album was very much 'meh' - not good by any stretch of the mind, but nothing worth hating. But then I got to the bonus disk and... oh boy, it took an ugly turn - big time. For what it's worth, Midnight Memories is going to make me say something I never thought I'd say: Justin Bieber is right by saying that 'Diana' is a good song, and is probably one of the few One Direction songs I can say I enjoy without qualifications. It's a shame that's probably the only good song on the album, a record that isn't as good as The Wanted's most recent release or the summer album from The Backstreet Boys.

Let me start with the few positives that I can give the band, mostly of which are confined to the performances. As much as I dislike the plastered, borderline-inauthentic cheeriness they bring to the proceedings (which has none of the bold-faced naivete and occasional genuine emotion that made S Club 7 palatable), One Direction does have a lot of energy, and the five boys are solid enough singers, and they do have reasonably solid harmonies on occasion. It helps they have a somewhat bigger breadth of singers in the group and they can hit a wider range of notes, with even some attempts at falsetto coming off better than expected. Sure, the band has little to no vocal texture between singers and only Zayn and Niall are consistently recognizable as unique in the mix, but if the band survives another three years, maybe they'll develop distinctive voices, who knows?

And you know, there are points where the instrumentation isn't all that bad either. I wish the band would come to a consensus whether they're using organic drums or drum machines throughout the album (the transitions between them are jarring), but the guitars can occasionally have some swell, the songs tend to have a good clip, and I won't deny that if they were looking to move towards a rock direction, they took a few good steps. However, that's where the compliments are going to end and the comparisons with N'Sync are about to begin, because just like that band, One Direction's moves towards a different genre are stymied by the band being completely unconvincing in the role.

Now that might be more of a factor of the subgenres of rock One Direction chose to emulate: folk rock and hair metal. They handle the former category a little better with songs like 'Happily', which is strikingly reminiscent of 'Ho Hey' by The Lumineers - and 'Through The Dark', which is rather close to 'The Cave' by Mumford & Sons. In fact, a Mumford & Sons comparison might be rather apt with One Direction, because both acts make extraordinarily catchy music that doesn't have any of folk's texture or good songwriting. And as for hair metal... look, I'm a hair metal junkie, I've listened to more of this ridiculous genre than I can articulate, and One Direction isn't within spitting distance of good rock here. The problem is in their voices - sorry, Harry Styles, you can't scream like David Lee Roth or Joe Elliott or David Coverdale yet, your voice has nowhere near the texture or power, and whenever you try, it's embarrassing.

And speaking of Joe Elliott, I wonder who told One Direction it was okay to jack the iconic riff from 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' for their title track 'Midnight Memories', because it was instantaneously recognizable as being very similar. This plays into a larger issue I have with One Direction and it addresses an excuse being made for this band time and time again, most recently with the controversy of 'Best Song Ever' sounding distressingly like 'Baba O'Reilly' by The Who. I'll put aside the fact that The Who are one of my favourite bands of all time, a staple of music, and are eons better than One Direction will ever be - sorry, Directioners, your special band isn't within spitting distance of making Tommy or Quadrophenia - but the argument being made in defense of One Direction is that they are simply reinterpreting this classic music for an audience that hasn't had a chance to hear it. They're a boy band for today, so if they choose to appropriate the title of a Backstreet Boys album from 2009 for their movie, we should just excuse it because it's not as if their fanbase will know or care. 

But here's the underlying point: that entire case is built on the assumption that One Direction thinks their fanbase are idiots who aren't willing to learn anything about music or their history. And you know, as much as I have huge issues with Directioners harassing established English hard rock legends like Pete Townsend (and a bigger issue with One Direction not saying anything to stop that behaviour), you can at least give them a little credit! Sure, most of them weren't alive when Joe Elliott wrote his hair metal classic, but it doesn't mean they might not be aware of the song, particularly considering some of them probably watched Tom Cruise ruin it in that Rock of Ages movie. 

But then again, if I wanted to know what One Direction thought of their audience - which is defiantly not me, I recognize that - I'd just listen though this album a few more times, and that takes us to One Direction's big glowing weak point, the one they've had since the very beginning: the songwriting and lyrics. And with the band's increased number of writing credits, I can say this definitively: these guys are not good songwriters, on a technical level. They aren't clever, they frequently rhyme words with themselves, and a lot of their songs are laser-focused on trying to woo some sweet teenage girl out of her clothes. And forget slow romantic ballads or anything with a veneer of class - nope, that's dumped very early, because there are maybe three ballads on this album if I'm being charitable because One Direction has absolutely no restraint in their songwriting (more on this in a bit). Even 'Diana', the one song I can say is good on this album, has songwriting problems: songwriter Liam Payne made it clear it's a song directed at all the girls named 'Diana' out there, but in the opening verse, he mentions the girl is on the front page of the paper, where you aren't likely to find Dianas on the front page... unless you're referring to Princess Diana, but she died when most of this band were little kids, and while I know she's still something of an iconic figure, it would come across as creepy for One Direction to be serenading a dead woman, and a married one at that!

And that's when One Direction is good! 'Story of My Life' tries to cast the band as the put-upon guy who gives everything to a girl who just disregards him (I know it's unbelievable as all hell, go with it), and then includes the line in the chorus, 'I spend her love until she's broke / inside'... look, I don't know who you read it, that's creepy! Or take the title track, which tries to simulate a raucous party and directs this line at the girl they're trying to romance, 'I know nothing's making sense / For tonight let's just pretend / I don't wanna stop so give me more'... girls, is this romantic or attractive to you? Or take 'Happily', which is another one of those oh-so-charming songs where One Direction tries to steal a guy's girlfriend even after it's implied in the first verse he and the girl had broken up! Or take 'Something Great', that has fun lines like 'I want you here with me / Like how I pictured it / So I don't have to keep imagining' - so, ladies, if you're turned on by guys saying, 'I'm totally having dirty thoughts about you', get with One Direction, who went to the Jason Derulo school of seduction techniques! Or 'Little White Lies', a song that actively encourages girls to play coy (because then One Direction will be attracted to you!) and say those 'little white lies' - because that's not encouraging a whole generation of guys to ignore girls when they start saying 'no' (you know, because they say they're good girls but they really want it)!

But you know, even with all of that terrible message, I was prepared to throw up my hands and just call this album mediocre and call it a day... but then I listened to the bonus disk... and the first three songs on that disk might be some of the most offensive songs I've heard this year, and I reviewed a album. The first track is 'Why Don't We Go There', which is a song written by every member of the band about trying to convince a girl to 'go all the way' with him - and they use every cheap, disgusting line in the book. The second track is 'Does He Know?', where the band articulates how this girl has a really sweet boyfriend who clearly knows and cares a lot... but that One Direction is going to screw her anyways and she's clearly going to 'love it'. The third track 'Alive' is about how each member of the band wants to get laid constantly and one girl is nervous what her friends will think if she screws them - and yet the band plays it all off with 'Hey, it's alright / Does it make you feel alive? / Don't look back, live your life / Even if it's only for tonight'. Because, by the next morning, One Direction will be on the other side of the world, and they will have forgotten your name. And keep in mind these are songs written by the band - these are their attitudes put to music, they aren't being fed material here, and it completely undercuts any romantic sentiment that they might have tried to build on this album. To quote them stealing from the Backstreet Boys, 'This Is Us'.

Girls, Directioners, is this attractive to you? Do you find this romantic? Really? I'm quoting lyrics to you here, and these aren't buried in symbolism or are all that hard to interpret. Say what you will about the Backstreet Boys or N'Sync or even The Wanted, they were never this straightforwardly leering and smug in their pursuit of girls, and the deeper undertones of this material - to say nothing of the legions of girls buying into it - really leaves a sour taste in my mouth. After listening to the main disk, I had a migraine. After listening to the bonus disk, I felt nauseated. Between the open appropriation of better music from better bands to the questionable to flat-out disgusting messages in their music, this album gets a 4/10 and no recommendation. 

And Directioners, fans of this band, before you throw all manner of bile and hatred at me - most of which I won't acknowledge - I want you to ask yourselves a few questions. Do you find this romantic? Do you find these messages attractive? Do you like how this band condescends to you and clearly thinks you know nothing about relationships or history or music or sex? Do you want to be with guys who pressure you into sex even when you feel nervous and uncomfortable?

Don't you think you deserve better than that? I think you do.

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