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One Direction Cements Image on 'Four'

One Direction-Four-Columbia Records-3.5 STARS

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Wherever your musical tastes may lie, it’s hard to deny that One Direction is a phenomenal boy-band. They’re a polished, expertly advertised product. You can’t really fault them for their lack of sonic experimentation, their tonal homogeneity, or their static subject matter. That’d be like criticizing a minivan for its slow acceleration or unimaginative styling: a complete and total missing of the point. One Direction isn’t trying to make some bold artistic statement—they’re asymptotically approaching the Platonic ideal of the teenage heartthrob. The band’s members—all with artfully tousled hair and wiry, boyish physiques—have cleverly assigned personalities, designed to appeal to as a wide a range of teeny-boppers as possible. The band—music, image, and all—is designed to appeal to a particular group and should be considered in that context.

The group’s newest effort, “Four,” is another entry in their catalogue of well-crafted tween fodder. The sound is homogenous throughout, landing squarely in the realm of slick pop-rock. There is some variation in tempo on the album, with a decent combination of fast-paced, energetic rockers and slow ballads, as well as a couple lighter, vaguely acoustic numbers. Still, none of it is particularly original musically, and One Direction covers their own well-trodden ground in that regard. The tunes, however, are eminently listenable and palatable. In this case, nothing new translates to nothing offensive, and One Direction’s crooning goes down smoothly, giving the listener zero cause for alarm or pause.

As far as subject matter goes, One Direction concerns itself with romance almost exclusively—as relationships are the tried-and-true subject of choice for the teenage masses. Band member Liam Payne claimed that the album would be “edgier” than previous offerings, but there is nothing here that hasn’t been said before. The song “Stockholm Syndrome,” for instance—with potential to be about the darker facets of a relationship—turns out to be another bland unrequited-love ballad, with the standard motif of the lover-as-prisoner deployed with mercenary precision.

“Steal My Girl”, the album opener, is another standard poppy piano ballad, complete with clapping-hands in the chorus. The song (surprise, surprise) also concerns itself with teenage relationships, this time focusing on the couple’s happiness and mutual love despite the fact that “everybody want to steal my girl / everybody want to take her heart away / couple billion in the whole wide world / Find another one because she belongs to me.” Standard fare, expertly calibrated to the appeal to the basic human desire to be wanted. Well-crafted, yes. But definitely not edgy. While there’s nothing new in this album, there are still some pleasurable moments that feel comfortable in their familiarity.

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“Night Changes,” a slow, crooning ballad, is sung delicately, with a reassuring refrain: “Even when the night changes / it will never change me and you.” It’s almost a shame; the song, with its themes of transformation and passage of time, could have conceivably come to a less saccharine conclusion. But the sugary, reassuring alternative isn’t completely unpleasant; it goes down easily. And the song “18”—a pensive acoustic number penned by fellow teen idol Ed Sheeran—is similarly predictable in subject matter (“I wanna love like you made me feel when we were 18 / I wanna love like you made me feel when we were 18 / I wanna love like you made me feel when we were 18,” etc.), but not musically unpleasant. It’s fine. Honestly, “Four” makes decent background music—if you can relax your focus enough to ignore the tonal homogeneity, the soppy lyrics, and the lack of innovation, the actual musical soundscape of the pieces isn’t offensive on a song-by-song basis.

For anyone outside their target demographic, “Four” is an artless, monotone product. But you can’t help but grudgingly admire the masterful control of image, the pop-rock palatability, the youthful sheen that pervades the album. There’s a strange pleasure in beholding this album—like holding a high-grade, expensive drill or some other piece of uninspired utilitarian hardware. One Direction isn’t writing for everyone, and they know it. There’s no embarrassing, dissonant artistic pretension, no attempt to latch onto an unreceptive, jaded demographic. For the teenybopper, One Direction is a delight, a product that’s unabashedly directed at and palatable to their target demographic. The rest of us can only watch in muted awe at the cold precision of this album and its laser-guided, heat-seeking ability to give the people what they want.

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