Monday, November 17, 2014

album review: 'four' by one direction

Okay, let's try this again.

By now most people who have watched this channel are well aware of my feelings on the British boy band One Direction when I reviewed their last album Midnight Memories. Basically, I'm not a fan, partially because I found their blatant appropriation of classic rock and hair metal songs to be in bad taste especially when they couldn't back it up, and I found their lyrical contributions to be less than savory and frequently creepy. In other words, I wasn't a fan, and I raised the question why any of their fans could like them beyond stereotypical boy band charm, especially when The Wanted and The Backstreet Boys dropped markedly better albums that same year. All of that being said, there was one legitimately great song on Midnight Memories with 'Diana' and the fact they pushed the amateurish and clumsy 'Story Of My Life' over that song is baffling to me.

But now a full year has passed, and the pop landscape is in a very different place than when One Direction dropped Midnight Memories last year. The charts have made a major shift from pop towards R&B and soul, even in the UK, and while The Wanted have effectively gone nowhere, One Direction does face real competition from 5 Seconds To Summer, who I've already covered twice this year and who actually dropped a decent self-titled album. And with the band taking over significantly more writing credits, I was prepared to cut One Direction a bit of slack - mostly because I remember what happened about thirteen years ago the last time R&B took over from the boy bands, and since One Direction are signed to Simon Cowell's Syco Records, I have no illusions surrounding the band's potential shelf life.

In other words, I was inclined to be charitable when I checked out their new album Four - did it surprise me?

Honestly, while it didn't really go that far, Four by One Direction is actually decent. And that's a pleasant enough discovery - which did leave me a little annoyed, if I'm being honest. It always gives me a lot of material when One Direction pisses me off, and really, this album didn't do that. In fact, it did show a few measurable improvements since Midnight Memories in many of the areas that mattered the most - and yet at the same time, this is an album that feels a little anonymous, almost a little by-the-numbers for me, trying to burrow down to the simplest possible formula to make One Direction's formula work, and at the same time some of the flavour of their best material has fallen away.

So let's start with the band themselves, and I will say, they're getting to be stronger and more distinctive vocalists, and aren't really called upon to humiliate themselves by stepping far outside their vocal ranges. In other words, I can actually tell more of them apart now, with Zayn and Niall still remaining the standouts and Liam becoming a more emotive and potent vocalist. And on the best tracks of this album, they've finally begun to improve their harmonic arrangements beyond sheer volume and energy, which of course proves to be another asset for them. And with songs like 'Night Changes', 'Spaces', and especially 'Fireproof', I wished that this album had the patience and restraint to really show off the vocal arrangements more. 

And that's where we arguably run into the biggest problem with this record right out of the gate, that being the instrumentation and production. Now One Direction have never been subtle - especially by boy band standards - and the instrumentation hammers this home with some of the loudest, heaviest, most lumbering compositions to date, fitting straight into percussion-heavy modern pop without any issues. And in typical One Direction style, it's so painfully obvious where their influences are it stops being funny - although on this record, I'd argue they've done a marginally better job incorporating them and modernizing them for their sound. In this case, the callbacks are mostly to 80s pop music, specifically the material of acts like Duran Duran and even a little post-Peter Gabriel Genesis - or from the acts that have drawn a lot from the 80s, like the Neon Trees, Arkells and especially Bleachers. And while you get Mumford & Sons-esque tracks like 'Ready To Run' or the obviously-written-by-Ed-Sheeran song '18', the majority are aiming to blend the sweeping melodies of 80s pop with modern heaviness, to somewhat mixed results. Most of this is an issue of synth choices, layering, and production - as much as I dug the piano melody that opens 'Steal My Girl', the abuse of pitch correction and marginalizing of the melody beyond fluttering guitar rhythms and choppy vocal leads kills a lot of its impact, especially considering it's a song screaming for a key change that never comes. And most of this production inconsistency comes from attempts to amp up the 'dance' vibe of these songs - the oscillating synth on 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go', the squealing synth, noisy drums, and messy vocal production on 'Girl Almighty' that really squandered some good guitar texture, the sheer overmixed and muddy sound of 'No Control' and 'Clouds', and the too obvious similarities between 'Stockholm Syndrome' and 'Shadow' by Bleachers. And none of it is helped by instrumentation that lacks some significant swell and colour - say what you will about Midnight Memories, but the instrumentation didn't quite feel as shapeless or anonymous as this record can occasionally feel. Part of it is a needed sense of contrast - when this record slows down to take a breath or allows the harmonies some room to breathe, like on the slow-burn of 'Night Changes', the fluttering airy vibe of 'Spaces', and especially the midtempo, almost old-school sound of 'Fireproof' with the shimmering guitars, they reap pretty damn solid returns, even if they all are a little too overstated for their own good.

But now we need to cut to the area where I've always taken the most issues with One Direction in the past, and that's the songwriting. And I can't believe I'm going to be saying this, but... One Direction has actually gotten better. Now there have been two issues that have defined One Direction's songwriting in the past: self-obsession, and a bad tendency to behave like creeps or douchebags when they try to pick up self-conscious and vulnerable girls. And while there are elements of self-obsession in the framing - more often than not, the story is less about the girl and more about the narrator himself - the contexts of many of these songs is a lot different, as in most of these cases One Direction is being placed in a position of vulnerability or are already in relationships on these tracks. Hell, for as unnecessarily defensive and possessive as One Direction comes across on 'Steal My Girl' - dude, she doesn't belong to you, she's done nothing in the song to imply she's leaving, and you've even got a solid relationship with her parents - the sentiment is better than on previous tracks like 'What Makes You Beautiful' or 'Little Things'. In fact, there's a significant chunk of songs on this album where the narrator is simply smitten to the point of cluelessness like on 'Ready To Run', 'Girl Almighty', 'Fool's Gold', and especially 'Stockholm Syndrome', the last of which doesn't exactly get a pass because even in hyperbolic young love, there's no excuse to romanticize that sort of thing. Granted, here's where they also get a little too silly for their own good - 'No Control' is so obviously a song about morning wood and yet it's so ridiculously chipper that you'd think they'd never had sex before - which honestly, considering how broad some of these tracks are, is a consistent tonal problem being too relentlessly and exaggeratedly peppy.

But it's where the songs opt for a little more complexity that this album gets interesting. 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go' is a case where our narrator blew a relationship and is now trying to restart it - although it is a little presumptuous on his part that she'd be willing to dive back in and that her heart is still broken. 'Spaces' is more of a straightforward breakup song where a relationship is obviously fracturing and waiting for someone to pull the trigger, although that is another song that could have benefited from more restraint. 'Fireproof' is a more straightforward love song where the girl is completely immune to his affections and the fire just isn't starting even despite One Direction's pleas - and yet it's downplayed, not really presented with desperate hope or anger or bitterness, just a bit of resignation. It's more than I can say for 'Clouds', probably the worst song on the record half because the leaden synth tone comes across as strikingly sour especially considering how petulant the lyrics feel. Fortunately, none of that really comes through on 'Night Changes', where One Direction is singing about a girl on a date - and yet it doesn't seem to be any members of the band, as the second verse implies someone else 'hiding behind a cigarette'. Coupled with the running motifs of lost innocence and recklessness throughout the song, it implies that maybe the narrator was the first love and while he and she are going on with their lives, they'll still share a palpable connection across the emptiness. It's probably the most complex emotional stakes that One Direction have ever tried to capture, and frankly, it works incredibly well.

So look, I'm not going to call Four by One Direction a great album. It's too broadly sketched, blandly or sloppily produced, and driven by more percussion than melody, and the songwriting could do more to sketch more interesting stories with more lyrical wit and flavour. But there's a lot of improvement here since Midnight Memories, I can admit that, especially in the areas where there needed to be improvement. Which means that I really can't get mad at this record, which is going to land a very light 6/10 from me and a bit of a recommendation. If you're a fan, or you've got a craving for modern boy bands with a bit of a throwback vibe. you could do worse than Four by One Direction, so if you're curious, it might just be worth checking out.

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