One Direction are a certified phenomenon, so much so that this album didn’t have to be good to be successful. Legions of fans follow them with a blind adulation rivaled only by Little Monsters and Beliebers. For lovers of the band, the focus is squarely on 1D’s coiffure, winsome good looks and radiant charisma, more so than their sonic output; 1D could have released an album of polka covers of Heidi Montag‘s Superficial and it still would have gone straight to #1. Ultimately, though, One Direction’s Take Me Home, which hits retailers , is actually pretty great — certainly better than it needs to be.
Pure pop through and through, the hooks are instantaneous and keenly crafted. The production is ’80s-inflected and intermittently rock-dappled, owing more to the sanitized punk crunch of McFly than to Backstreet Boys or NSYNC, the millennial pop to which 1D are most frequently compared. Even if these songs aren’t particularly varied, they all work well on their own, if all that adolescent pep starts to feel labored by the 17th track of the monolithic Yearbook Edition.“Live While We’re Young,” which will satisfy fans. The head-bopping “Kiss You,” the next single, is a clear standout, as is the irresistible “Rock Me,” the only track on the album courtesy of current superproducer Dr. Luke, who lends it a Queen-referencing chorus that’s more explosively punchy than anything else on this album full of fine refrains. The clubby synths on “C’mon C’mon” are equally sharp, all positivity and soaring zest. But even by the Jonas Brothers-esque “Heart Attack,” with its boyish yelping, that shtick is starting to wear thin. “I Would,” with its almost-not-quite-drum-and-bass pre-chorus and bouncy ’80s hook, turns the energy back up a notch.
The songs that aren’t quite so uptempo vary more dramatically in their efficacy: “Little Things” represents a risk for 1D, as the Ed Sheeran-penned ballad is subtler than their typical output, but it doesn’t pay off, a snoozy, lackluster dud amidst a lot of polished, anthemic hits. Less dreary is the other track written by Sheeran, “Over Again,” with instrumentation that’s just bombastic to elevate the lyrics beyond the pedestrian. The swoony “Last First Kiss,” with a chorus melody cribbed straight from Avril Lavigne‘s underrated single “Wish U Were Here,” should be courting controversy with lyrics about wanting to be “the first to take it all the way like this” (yikes), but neatly bypasses scandal with production that’s heartstring-tugging in its wholesome cheer. And best of all might be the final two tracks, “They Don’t Know About Us” and “Summer Love,” a pair of dazzling midtempo ballads that feel more expansive than the taut songcraft that precedes them.
But unlike many pop albums that command a rabid fanbase, Take Me Home never packs the sonic risks or thrills that would garner attention from listeners outside of their target demo — it’s not like there’s anything here to rival the dazzling songcraft of Taylor Swift‘s “State of Grace,” or Justin Bieber‘s exhilarating diversion into gloomy dubstep on “As Long As You Love Me.” It’s wearying in its predictability, even if it does what it sets out to do excellently. The shame is that the fans who love One Direction will love all of Take Me Home, undiscriminatingly, because the boys are so damn charming. Meanwhile, the broader public who might well be won over by the exceptional craft on some of these pop songs likely won’t get a chance to hear them over the roar of 1D’s fans. No matter — One Direction is still a thriving business.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: Look to the bonus tracks for a few gems, like “Irresistible” and “Magic.” But the best, “Truly Madly Deeply,” compensates for the initial disappointment of not being a Savage Garden cover by being deceptively lovely and well-wrought — in particular, the lyric “Or did I dream that we were perfectly entwined / Like branches on a tree, or twigs caught on a vine” is positively Dylanesque after an album of lyrics rife with abstract cliches.
Pops Like: Up All Night.
Best Listened To: While underage.
Full Disclosure: If I were a few years younger, I’d probably be singing a very different song about 1D’s charms — and even I’ve been known to get a little dizzy over Liam’s jawline. That doesn’t change the fact that Take Me Home feels a little cynical, even as it excels in making some of the purest pop of the year.
— Sam Lansky