“Whether they can keep up this momentum by traveling this rut-ridden road remains to be seen. But for now, they’re here, topping the charts, and wooing young hearts.” Apologies if it is narcissistic to quote yourself, but this is what I wrote about One Direction a mere year and a half ago when their debut album Up All Night was imprinting their pretty faces indelibly into the hearts of ‘tween girls everywhere. My concern then was that the contrived, manufactured nature of how this boy band came together (namely, X-Factor flunkies that were grouped together as an alternative to sending them home) would not be enough to carry them. The boys had an opportunity, but they were going to have to grow into these shoes.
There was definitely forward movement for them with their follow up record Take Me Home. And now with their third album in two years, Midnight Memories, happily One Direction have upped their game yet again. With an expanded, more guitar-driven sound, a diverse track list and impeccable production, the boys have matured in their sound and musical approach to the point that they can stand on their own feet, and it no longer matters how they came together.
When I say “matured,” I am referring to musicality, not necessarily content. One Direction (and no doubt their handlers) are very aware of their audience (and their audience’s parents), so lyrically they stay well within the PG zone, venturing into a bit more seductive territory only within the deluxe edition tracks. But even here, this music is still safer for young ears than the likes of Lady Gaga or (gasp!) Miley Cyrus. Indeed, with the exception of perhaps Taylor Swift, 1D remain the safest bet in pop music, from a lyrical standpoint, anyhow.
That said, the maturity is definitely happening in the music. Where the songs on their earlier recordings seemed more hand-picked for a salable boy-band product, the tunes on Midnight Memories seem to be reaching more toward making a just plain good pop/rock record. One factor playing into this dynamic is the fact that the boys had much more of a hand in the songwriting this go-round. It results in a more honest, organic approach to the music; it also sends the message that by writing together, the boys feel more of a connection to one another than just having been “thrown together,” which is a very good sign. Ironically, the lead single “Best Song Ever,” while definitely a great pop song, is one song they didn’t have a hand in writing; in context, it sounds the most true-to-formula as a boy-band tune, to the point that it almost doesn’t fit on the record.
Point: after hearing that song as the album’s opening track, expect to be taken deeper. With influences ranging from 80’s-style backbeat pop (“Diana”) to Mumford-and-Sons pop-folk (“Through the Dark,” “Happily”) to Def Leppard-esque anthem rock on the title track—and a little bit on “Little Black Dress,” as well—One Direction expand their musical palette into broader pop territory and somehow manage to tick all these boxes without sounding excessively gimmicky. Rather, the whole thing comes across like 1D are trying to sound more like an actual band than just a vocal group. In my opinion, they succeed.
And so, Midnight Memories serves as something of a graduation. While there’s plenty to like about the band’s first two records, I think we’ll look back at this one as the point at which One Direction stopped functioning as a manufactured pop act and became a serious collective. They may have started as a figment of Simon Cowell’s imagination, a product to be sold—but they have taken the opportunity and found their footing together. Provided the good chemistry continues, I think we’ll be hearing from these guys for some time to come.