The funny thing about this One Direction album, as with past One Direction albums, is that it doesn’t actually need to be this good to be a wild commercial success: The adults who it would actually impress probably won’t be listening, and the millions of teens who will buy it would blindly follow the tousle-headed, winsome gents of the band into polka, or krautrock, or Mongolian throat singing, or wherever.
Such is the case when the fanaticism surrounding a band eclipses the actual product — the music. But Midnight Memories out today, , on Columbia Records, is one of the sturdier pop releases in recent memory, especially in a year where the biggest pop divas floundered or underperformed. (There were no new albums from last year’s chart queens, Adele and Taylor Swift, while Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga all managed healthy sales numbers, but nothing to rival years past.)
And by their third studio album, One Direction have proven themselves to be a surprisingly reliable pop act, and here, as ever, the choruses soar marvelously, the harmonies are pleasing, the production is taut and the songcraft is beyond reproach. People are fond of calling boy band tunes manufactured, but when the quality is this premium, it hardly matters.
And given their reputation as a manufactured act, it’s worth noting that they claim writing credits on nearly all of the songs here, which should silence a few detractors, if nothing else. (That is to say, their involvement in the songwriting doesn’t make it feel that much more personal, but it’s a nice token of their participation.) None of the boys had a hand in the composition of lead single “Best Song Ever” and accordingly, it’s the thing that feels most like their first two albums, light pop-rock crunch that evokes their hits of yore, but they’re in full grown-up form on the Mumford & Sons-esque “Story Of My Life,” which hits all the right uplift buttons.
Sure, there’s probably one or two too many mopey Ed Sheeran-style ballads, which make Midnight Memories feel more labored than it needs to, but the uptempo tracks in particular are knockouts: The anthemic “Diana” is a standout, while the title track feels like a lost ’80s rock classic, with another “We Will Rock You”-style chorus (just like “Rock Me” from their last LP). Good too is the soaring, Ryan Tedder-helmed “Right Now,” and it’s tough to resist the guitar plucking on “Happily,” even with that cringe-inducing lyric from Louis Tomlinson about leaving “traces in her hair.” (Ugh.) And even when it drags, as on the dreary “Something Great,” it always picks up again, as with the pummeling, faux-dubstep-inflected “Little White Lies” and the rollicking “Little Black Dress.” There’s just not all that much to dislike here.
Midnight Memories is a busy record, showing its influences with the lighters-up, arena-sized choruses of hits by Coldplay or even Oasis, albeit filtered through with an additional radio-pop sheen, and the folksy studio-roots bleating of Mumfordified bro-rock, and classic ’80s hard rock, too, here and there. But if many of those influences will be lost on the target demographic, that’s fine, because it doesn’t really sound like any of that; it sounds like a One Direction album, like exactly how boy band pop should sound this year. It’s a good record, if you can hear it over the screams of their fans.
Best Listened To: While young.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
— Sam Lansky