A debut album is normally thought of as a statement of purpose, but boy band Why Don’t We’s 8 Letters feels aimless, like a series of genre exercises hastily thrown together.
This musical aimlessness has a commercial purpose; in fact, it’s a necessary strategy for any boy band or girl group hoping to enjoy Top 40 success today. That’s because the process of breaking an act like this one is more random than ever. “Before it was a push business,” ace songwriter Savan Kotecha explained in April. “Labels would push an act on a TV show, an award show, get that spot, get radio and it goes. Now it’s more of a pull business … it’s all about throwing out content.”
You could watch this transition happen in real time over the last few years. One Direction led their debut album with the Kotecha-penned “What Makes You Beautiful;” it went to Number One in the U.K., and they released an album two months later. It was harder just two years after for Fifth Harmony. They released a pair of EPs (plus acoustic versions and remixes) and then two new singles before they got enough traction to move to an album over a year later.
Now we’re seeing the next set of pop groups, including PRETTYMUCH, In Real Life and Why Don’t We, spray songs at an even faster pace. Why Don’t We have released five different EPs and even more singles in under two years. In February, they put out “Trust Fund Baby,” a brassy hip-pop number co-written by label-mate Ed Sheeran. It’s most notable for offering sound financial advice — “save your money, don’t spend it” — but it was also moderately successful on pop radio, so here comes the album.
Sort of: 8 Letters is just eight songs, not much longer than an EP, because there’s no point in wasting time on something that might not land. And sure enough, most of this stuff doesn’t land. The title track hopes to ride the coattails of Lauv’s hit “I Like Me Better;” “Choose” is an obligatory nod to trap; “Friends” is a decidedly non-festive party record. Why Don’t We are better off when they’re upset: On “Hard,” they decide to walk away from a manipulative relationship, and angst suits them.
But to some degree this is all besides the point — as Kotecha put it, the goal is “throwing out content.” In that sense, mission accomplished.