In recent years, the release of a new One Direction record has become a November tradition on par with Black Friday sales and the first chilly blasts of winter. After being cobbled together by impresario Simon Cowell as part of the British version of The X Factor, the quintet — composed of Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, and Zayn Malik, if you need a refresher — has released an album every year like clockwork: no earlier than November 9th, no later than November 25th. All of them top the Billboard charts in their first week available. The music contained within each record has remained consistent, too: the band specializes in affable, buoyant pop-rock, drunk on youth and young manhood and sung largely in unison despite the small army of capable vocalists on hand.
At first glance, last year’s Midnight Memories was similar to the band’s first efforts — a perky lead single, a few folky stompers for balance, lyrical emphasis on love and lust and living in the moment — but a closer look at the album’s credits revealed a shift in their songwriting process. Working with veteran songwriters/producers Julian Bunetta and John Ryan, the band’s members — Tomlinson and Payne, in particular — began to play more of an active role in shaping their sound, with songwriting credits on all but two of the album’s fourteen main tracks. The result was a record that leaned toward arena-filling classic rock and power pop via chunky, bold riffs, spacious percussion, and booming chants; when it clicked, like on the spunky “Diana” and the Big Star-aping “Little Black Dress,” it revealed a valid alternative vision of chart pop that eschewed the dominant contemporary influences of dance and hip-hop, a vision almost unique to One Direction.
The band’s new record, simply titled Four, continues that evolution: its members are more involved in the composition of their material than ever, and the album as a whole takes another step towards the stadium-sized rock first suggested by Midnight Memories. There’s something endearing to the revelation that left to their own devices, One Direction’s members just want to make heart-on-sleeve, slightly cheesy ’80s arena anthems in the vein of Journey, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A.; it does more to contribute to their obvious cultivation of a cool “we’re just regular lads!” identity than a year’s worth of goofy interview clips and candid documentary footage. Their take on the sound is immaculate: arrangements are grand and spacious, with guitar lines glistening and rhythms cavernous and blooming, and the band’s increasingly distinct vocals — allowed to sparkle via the use of harmony more than ever — at the forefront. Songs like lead single “Steal My Girl” and the dramatic “Fool’s Gold” have an expert sense of pace and scale, building from relatively quiet openings to giant, gorgeous climaxes, and even less ambitious songs like “Fireproof” and “18” feel designed to reach the back corners of the biggest venues on the planet.
The material is helped along by the fact that the band’s members are becoming more compelling, and recognizable, singers. Early One Direction records and lead singles often sound like they’re being performed by a cute gang of urchins, talented but lacking formal training: a pleasant overall sound, but thin and homogeneous. On Four, it’s easier than ever to pick out the voices of each member, from Tomlinson’s sweet, feminine tenor to Malik’s muskier, more sensual tone and Styles’ raspy swagger. Small steps from tone to tone within each song lend them a dynamism and varied palette that earlier compositions lacked, and when they come together to form a tricky, shifting tapestry on the golden, folky “Fireproof,” it’s the album’s best moment.
Four also sustains the subplot that becomes increasingly prominent with each new One Direction record: the boys’ maturation into men, and the constraints placed on that maturation by the demographic facts of their commercial proposition. Each member is now in their early 20s — old enough to try their hands at “18,” an Ed Sheeran-penned weeper about loving like you did at that age, without it becoming too laughable — and there are moments on the record where their sexuality, while remaining thinly veiled, is palpable. Take “Girl Almighty,” a high-energy gallop framed as a toast to the female form that’s largely an excuse for the band’s members to yelp, “I’d get down on my knees for you!” Most songs are less explicit with their innuendo, of course, but tracks like “Fool’s Gold,” “No Control,” and the spunky Styles-penned “Stockholm Syndrome” are ripe with lust and physical expressions of affection. It’s fun to find the spots on each new record where the band’s burgeoning adulthood pokes through their polished veneer, but it’s even more exciting to think about what’ll happen when their identity takes a step forward to match the progress they’ve made musically.