One Direction have now been the biggest pop band in the world for three full years. Such longevity doesn’t exactly make them the Allman Brothers – but it’s pretty impressive for a bunch of singing-contest runners-up joined together in Simon Cowell’s laboratory. If any of these guys harbor secret dreams of going solo or becoming an actor or a fashion exec, they’ve stayed secret. They don’t appear to be jerks. (Justin Bieber’s PR team would chop off his two middle fingers for that kind of consistency.)
It’s unclear whether the title Four is an actual Led Zeppelin reference, but the album is saturated with retro vibes. These songs split the difference between big, splashy Eighties pop rock and more elegant Seventies flavors – a very millennial move that’s not so far from what Haim’s hit Days Are Gone did last year. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is a Slippery When Wet blast of synth-metal fluff with a scream-along chorus designed to detonate chaperone eardrums. “Spaces” suggests the Eagles if they’d ever made a record with Ryan Tedder. And the bubbly “Girl Almighty” takes a rolling rhythm reminiscent of Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” into some prim guitar flicks copy-pasted right out of Fleetwood Mac’s “I Don’t Want to Know.” This isn’t the first time 1D have tried on some old-school moves – check the Clash guitar that opened 2012’s “Live While We’re Young” or the glorious “Baba O’Riley” synth slams of last year’s “Best Song Ever,” their best song ever – but Four hits like a Nerf Hammer of the Gods.
As always, the vocal duties are divvied up in ways that highlight the singers’ similarities, placing weapons-grade hottie Harry Styles and take-him-or-leave-him Irishman Niall Horan in the same democratic swirl of desire. And the audience is right there with them: One Direction have mastered the ancient boy-band art of whispering directly into listeners’ ears. On “Ready to Run,” rippling acoustic guitars set a searching tone while each member calls out for the sweet salvation only you can provide – yes, you, right there, in section G, row 45, seat 11. Then they all come together and gallop toward a glistening Valhalla of a chorus.
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There are moments on Four where the Big D and their co-writers let a little droll irony creep into the mix. The album’s brightest song is a slick, body-moving R&B ditty called “Stockholm Syndrome,” with lyrics co-written by Styles about being under his girl’s thumb that could also be read as a meek cry for help from deep within the prison of celebrity (even if it totally isn’t). But the band mainly shows growth through the music. Four‘s tune for the ages is “Fireproof,” a subtle, pleading soft-rock lullaby any boy band, man band or unicorn band would be proud to call its own. Riding a spare bass line à la the Mac’s “Gypsy,” the guys take turns big-upping your lifesaving power over not much more than some Christine McVie-style keyboards, California guitar gold and their own billowing background vocals. How great would an entire album of such smooth, polished simplicity be? Maybe on Eight. Till then, fellas, stay frosty.