One Direction has long refused to adhere to the traditional tropes of boy bands: No matching outfits, coordinated dance moves, or squeaky-clean personas (Zayn even smokes cigarettes!). On their fourth album, Four, they continue to resist teen-pop trends and eschew the tempting specter of EDM in favor of the stadium-sized handclaps and over-earnest bombast of the 1980s. Dabbling in everything from Duran Duran-style new wave (“No Control”) to ornately orchestrated ballads reminiscent of Phil Collins (“Ready to Run”), Four positions One Direction as a unique throwback act, using the classic boy-band format as a means to inject new life into an even more antiquated subgenre.
Despite continuing to take on a larger songwriting role here, the group fails to imbue their songs with the goofy charm they exhibit in their interviews. This may be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen: Written by 1D members Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne with the help of four outside songwriters, lead single “Steal My Girl” is a lazy composition, with “sixteen/queen/dreams” rhyme schemes, an overused soporific piano loop, and a cloying copout of a “na-na-na” refrain. The Ed Sheeran-penned “18” is a stale attempt at romantic grandeur (“I have loved you since we were 18/Long before we both thought the same thing/To be loved, to be in love”) magnified by ringing church bells and echoing U2-style guitar. “The Girl Almighty” fares better, with its strumming acoustic guitars, slinky synth lines, and a subdued chorus that stands out from One Direction’s typical “shout it to the rafters” approach. And though it’s easy to imagine “Fireproof” reiterating the stale sonic signature of “18,” a breezy drum-machine beat lends a sense of levity to what could have been another misguided attempt at introspective posturing.
As One Direction wavers between lurching, sub-Coldplay balladry (“Fool’s Gold,” “Night Changes”) and moments of exuberant abandon worthy of a group of twentysomethings with the world at their feet (“Where Do Broken Hearts Go”), Four proves to be a document that simultaneously exemplifies the good and bad of boy-band pop (from its emphasis on lean, utilitarian songwriting and a willingness to reuse cheesy but satisfying vocals-and-drums refrains to its overblown instrumentation and overly simplistic emotional appeals), done up with a synth-heavy, reverb-happy ’80s sheen. The album’s irresistibly obvious choruses, hackneyed sentiments, and puppy-eyed earnestness can come off as endearing when the songwriting is clever enough, but every misstep is, despite the band’s efforts to assert more control over their music, a painful reminder of One Direction’s status as a manufactured, focus-grouped pop entity.