Every straight guy ever has parlayed their first bouts of boredom with masturbation into attempted mastery of the guitar. But only a few of them ever get to announce their masculine renaissance on as grand a scale as Zayn, Niall, Louis, Harry, and Liam do on Midnight Memories. Tossing aside the wilted tissues of their adolescent pop trifles in favor of protein-blasted rock anthems and mountain-man acoustic ballads, One Direction’s third album is their ’roidy bid to graduate from boy-bandom. And if its hasty pacing and heavy petting belie all that flexing, it’s not like their compassionate fanbase is keeping track of the seconds. The scalawaggish quintet is impossible to dislike unless you involuntarily hate everything young women love, and no matter how furtive 1D’s evolution may end up seeming in retrospect, we’re still at the stage where everyone’s just happy whenever they come around.
Still, this being but a transitional moment in their career, the album peaks early right out of the gate with the Who-cribbing cradle rocker “Best Song Ever,” which is so much closer to fulfilling its own title’s metaphor than anyone will be willing to credit it for. With introductory nods toward “Baba O’Reily” invoking that mythical teenage wasteland, the tune argues that music is meant to be processed through experience, not necessarily according to its merit. “We danced all night to the best song ever/We knew every line, now I can’t remember/How it goes, but I know that I won’t forget her.” In other words, the best song ever is probably the lamest, most generic song ever, but who cares when it gives you the chance to share your dirty little mouth with sweet Georgia Rose? Coming off a little bit like the spear counterpart to Katy Perry’s distaff “Teenage Dream,” “Best Song Ever” both establishes the album’s presuppositions about what One Direction stands for and what they wish to transcend.
To no one’s surprise, the band whose young mates appear to be in a race to see who can most swiftly cover their body in ink has a sweet tooth for ’80s hair bands—and a salty tooth for heartfelt twang. It’s a two-pronged bid to shed their baby-fat image: half adult entertainment, half adult contemporary. In tracks like “Little Black Dress,” “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” and especially the title track, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to Broadway’s Rock of Ages, 1D do their best to approximate the slow, perverted crunch of Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses power ballads. The tracks may recall “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” but their lyrics are still all “I’m not scared of love/’Cause when I’m not with you I’m weaker,” so essentially the album’s potentially nastiest tracks come off as a glorified Halloween costume act.
More believable are the moments when they lay off the hard sell, as in the Mumford-esque “Story of My Life” and “Through the Dark.” (Sample lyric: “I wish that I could take you to the stars/I’ll never let you fall and break your heart/And if you wanna cry or fall apart/I’ll be there to hold you.”) In those moments, the boys actually sound like they believe they need you and not the 50 million other members of the demographic who actually thinks One Direction has contenders for the title of “Best Song Ever.”