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Junk Mail: One Direction, 'FOUR' Album Review

by Carolyn Menyes   Nov 20, 2014 16:44 PM EST

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about One Direction's new album FOUR. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Carolyn Menyes: Here we are, guys. It's 1D time! I'm excited. I hope you are, too. I have a particular fondness for boy bands and the likes (except 5 Seconds of Summer -- screw those guys) because of my childhood dedication to the Backstreet Boys, so I will not be sipping the One Direction haterade just for the sake of hating.

It's shocking to think these whippersnappers are on their fourth album, which they so cleverly titled FOUR. I worry about how tired they must be, 'cause they're cranking out albums at an alarming rate. Someone's going to snap (and it will probably be Zayn Malik).

Caitlin Carter: They really are churning out albums - one a year at this rate. I wonder if they are just trying to get their contract completed as quickly as possible, make their money, and move on to life after boy band. I've been following these guys for the past year of their journey, but I don't have the archival knowledge that Carolyn probably has. I'm also not a huge fan of boy band pop for the most part, but can appreciate it in the proper context and don't hate on it just to hate either.

I think FOUR was a pretty solid album. I supposed with a pop band that is essentially a constructed product, you can't expect to hear a developed "sound," so it makes sense that these guys are all over the board as far as genre influences on this record. It's extremely diverse, but well-written and tightly executed. I definitely didn't hate it, and there were even some songs I'd likely go back to.

Kyle Dowling: My opinion on One Direction is pretty simple: I don't care about them. Having said that, there's a good amount of talent there. When I saw them perform "Story of My Life" on Saturday Night Live a while back I found myself incredibly surprised because I never cared to give them a listen (...mainly because I'm 28 and that's just weird if I listen to boy bands all the time). Anyway, since then, "Story of My Life" has been on my Spotify and I occasionally find myself listening to it. Okay, onto FOUR...

I think it had a number of good pop tracks that will make tweens and teens scream their little heads off. I also think it has some not-so-good pop tracks that will similarly make tweens and teens scream their little heads off. Call it what you will, but it's a pretty solid (not to steal Caitlin's words) album. I don't know much (or anything) of these guys' personal lives, nor do I care to, but FOUR was a good listen for me and I'm sure it will be for the masses.

CM: I kind of disagree with you, Caitlin. I do think 1D has a signature sound. You can always tell them apart from whatever other boy band because they blend in a modern 2014 pop sound with an English folk and '80s new wave influence. There's a lot of acoustic guitar on this record and heavy synth, more than you would instinctively think a boy band would have.

As for your point, Kyle, "Story of My Life" is basically the crowning achievement in One Direction's discography thus far.

One Direction really shine when they get a little more introspective. The musicality is just richer then and they feel like real artists, which I think helps to connect them so much with their fans. This is why "Night Changes" is the best song on this record. It's a beautiful mix of the '80s thing and the folk harmonies and it tells a really pretty and universal story. I've been listening to "Night Changes" an embarrassing amount this week -- and watching their promos, which are so hilarious.

CC: Carolyn, to that point, I do think they are doing more versatile work than you would expect from a boy band, but I don't think that gives them a signature sound. I think non-1D fans could listen to these songs and think it were some new artist in whatever genre the song is working in. You can peg them in the genre of "pop" I suppose, but honestly pop isn't really a genre more than it is a label for mainstream accessibility.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't have expectations as to what the band will sound like. It will depend on what sounds are trending at the time. Twenty years from now, I don't think people will be like, "Oh wow these 'newcomers' sound a lot like they've been influenced from that old boy band One Direction from the early 2010s."

I agree with your point about them shining when their lyrics get introspective. The worst thing a boy band can do for themselves is have super predictable lyrics, partially because we predict them to be predictable anyway. So when they do something unexpected, it strengthens the superb execution you already know you're going to get from 1D and their team.

KD: I think I may lean a little bit with Caitlin here. While I do think they’ve got more going for them than other boy bands around, it’s hard to say they’ve got a signature sound. At least, for me. But of course, I really don’t know many other “boy bands” dominating the charts today.

I’m not one to get into dissecting things and such, but with the introspective lyrics you guys are talking about, I’m curious (and I’m really asking here because I don’t know), did these guys write the words or are they just ones singing it?

CM: I can't say for sure. I do know that One Direction were in the studio with the songwriters throughout the process of making FOUR and they have credits on everything but "18" and "Girl Almighty." I think Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles in particular were key in writing a few tracks. So, you know, they're not total industry puppets when it comes to their actual material, at least not anymore.

And since they've had more of a hand in the songwriting, which began with Midnight Memories, you have heard something different in their music. It's more guitar heavy and more '80s heavy. Listen to anything from these last two albums and compare it to the first two -- they almost sound like a totally new band. "What Makes You Beautiful" this is not.

And there ARE NO other boy bands. The Wanted broke up in relative obscurity and Emblem 3 is like a less successful LFO. We have 5 Seconds of Summer, but they reject the boy band label and they do have a more rock edge, so I don't know how to label them. It's not like being a boy band is a bad thing. The world needs boy bands, in my opinion. I feel for a generation of girls who couldn't crush on Ricky Martin, Nick Carter or Niall Horan. It just wouldn't be fair. :(

As for the actual music of FOUR, which we haven't gotten to yet (lol), what did you guys think? I like it but it feels a little inconsistent to me.

CC: I would agree. To me, it is inconsistent in both quality and sound. Having a diverse sound isn't necessarily the issue here, though. I feel like they could've made the album a bit more lean and packed a bigger punch. I would say that "Cloud" and "No Control" are actually my favorites on the album. I, like Carolyn, also really liked "Night Changes."

KD: I may have to claim ignorance on the "inconsistent" comments. To me, the album is a collection of different songs containing different sounds and genres, to a degree. They're trying out an array of sounds, perhaps trying to break free from what they've done in the past, and I think they should be somewhat championed for that.

As far as the music goes, "Night Changes" is easily at the top of my list as well. Quite a beautiful song, I must say. I also thought there was something rather sweet about "Once in a Lifetime." It's a short song, but I like the acoustic guitar angle they went for on that.

CM: By inconsistent, I guess I mean I feel like this album ranges widely in the quality. I do think it's pretty sonically cohesive, or at least it is as much as any real pop album can be. I just feel like "No Control," "Girl Almighty" and even the lead single "Steal My Girl" are so next level. The hooks in those songs are insane, I dare you to try and get any of them out of your head. The band even shines on the slow songs. We can all admit we love "Night Changes" but "Fool's Gold" follows a similar footwork and it has fairly equal results.

So, we know these guys and their songwriters can write a killer hook and they can even show a beautiful tender side. When there's a high bar, it just makes bad songs hit with even more of a punch. "Change Your Ticket" and the bonus track "Act My Age" are a little too immature for 1D at this point, which is kind of crazy to say. I just want the best out of One Direction because I know we can get it.

So, I take it you didn't like FOUR, Caitlin? And Kyle, I feel like you realized it wasn't your cup o' tea either. Did it fail to connect to you?

CC: Not true, actually. I did enjoy the album, and was honestly surprised that I did. I thought most of the songs were very accessible and catchy as hell. After a few more listens, I feel like I can sing the lyrics to most of the tracks. That's saying something, for sure. I'd also like to go back and add "Stockholm Syndrome" and believe it or not "Fireproof" to my list of favorites.

As for what I didn't think was up to par... I agree that "Change Your Ticket" and "Act my Age" are super basic. I also think that "Ready To Run" is a complete "Wake Me Up" rip-off. The intro is almost identical, although the progression deviates a bit. At this point, they need to stop ripping off sounds and instead just be influenced by them.

KD: I wouldn't say I hated it. There were a few tracks I enjoyed during the listen. I think it just comes down to the fact that it's not my type of thing as a whole. I was happy to hear they have some sort of writing talents, though. With that, as "Story of My Life" is a song that I will continually listen to, I do think "Night Changes" might be the same thing.

I really think the album could have done without "Change Your Ticket" and "Act My Age" ... despite how catchy they are. Those songs, as Carolyn said, are just too immature for the band, and I think weakened it significantly. For me, at least. It's like, thinking that they're maturing as artists and "songwriters" and then being slapped with a child-like tune thrown on there just to sell tickets. #fail - that's a thing, right?

CM: #FAIL is maybe still a thing? We can ask One Direction's fans... the tweens always know what's going on. ALWAYS.

I get the more fun song thing, in the end, because it does appeal to those tweens. They're not looking for an album full of "Night Changes," they want something stupid and innocent and fun. Maybe that's why "Girl Almighty" appeals to me. It's a really wonderful blend of acoustic driven depth and that really stupidly catchy pop. It's quite the work of art, to be honest.

CC: It's gotta be interesting to be behind the scenes on a project like this, that is so clearly constructed to sell, sell, sell. I'd love to know how much forethought goes into targeting these songs to specific demographics of their fanbase.

KD: I imagine that’s the difficult thing for any person in their field. You’re the face of your product, and in the pop world it is a product, so it must be hard finding that balance on a record… which could perhaps answer why the album’s songs were so different. Does that make sense?

CM: It makes perfect sense. 1D pander less than they used to. If you listen back to their first two albums, Up All Night and Take Me Home, you'll notice they always sing to a "you." "That's what makes you beautiful," "Let me kiss you," "Baby I loved you first," etc., etc., etc. It was so the fans could connect better. Now, they're far more specific in their lyricism now. There's still a science to the boy band song, but it's not as bad as it was just two years ago. Progress!

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CM: One Direction has continued to impress me on FOUR. What I like about these guys is that they really blend their own musical sensibility with the typical boy band "thing." Maybe y'all don't hear it, but it's there and it's really fulfilling.

KD: While I don't find myself a fan of boy bands, I will admit that these guys are branching out a bit. I like the efforts put forth into making each song on FOUR sound different; I also like the idea that they're maturing from their earlier days. I think the record is a solid one for the band and I'm sure all of their fans will agree. As far as my Spotify playlist? It's now song longer - thanks to "Night Changes."

CC: One Direction surprised me with their versatility on FOUR. I think it was a solid record, and I'm confident it will sell incredible well. I definitely don't think they are your typical boy band when it comes to their dynamic, but I also don't see them reinventing the wheel and creating a sound all their own. 

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