November 20, 2013

Test Spins: One Direction, Midnight Memories

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The Nov. 18 leak of British/Irish boy-band One Direction’s third album, Midnight Memories, generated some serious Twitter buzz, as well as portraiture of the Directioners fandom — a huge portion of which tweeted their intent to restrain themselves (super painfully) and wait for the official release to listen to the album. Meanwhile, a 21 year-old woman Facebook messaged me all 18 MP3s, writing, “MIDNIGHT MEMORIES HAS LEAKED. EVERY GOD DAMN SONG IS A JAM AND I’M CRYING.”

The album is already receiving mixed reviews. The blogosphere calls it beautiful; The Huffington Post calls it plagiarism, insisting that no 13 year-old fan is going to pick up on the fact that the title track “Midnight Memories” contains “Pour Some Sugar on Me” throwbacks, that the opening chord progression of “Best Song Ever” is straight out of “Baba O’Riley”  and that “Diana” doesn’t just sound “sort of” like “that song Mr. Schue and Rachel sing in Glee” (as has been Tweeted by 1D fans). The thing about these accusations is, while the influences they’re talking about are obviously there, this is pop music — by nature, there are going to be moments when it all starts to sound the same. Pete Townshend (The Who) even publicly responded, saying, “No! I like the single. I like One Direction. The chords I used and the chords they used are the same three chords we’ve all been using in basic pop music.”

What’s impressive about this album is how well it marries its influences and manages to make sense of having a handful of folk tracks, a half-dozen ’70/’80s pop-rock anthems, an acoustic bonus track and a quick foray into dubstep style on the same album — a combination that would make most groups read schizophrenic. More impressive still is that One Direction continues to be the boy band without an obvious Justin Timberlake — no one is a stand out because every single one of them is talented as all hell and likeable as can be. This album sees all five guys with their own spotlighted vocal time. “Story of My Life” is the only song the five wrote together and features a solo from each, resulting in the best single I have ever heard released by a boy band. The chorus shifts from pretty to poignant seamlessly, from “the story of my life: I give her hope,” to “I spend her love, until she’s broke inside.” If you saw This Is Us, part rock n’ roll tour documentary, part coming-of-age story, you’ll bawl some more real baby tears at the sight of the boys’ families in the video for this one.

Following the lead of originally-PG-pop-artists like Taylor Swift, The Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, One Direction takes advantage of the standard third album step-up of swagger and sex: Harry Styles’ co-writing credit, “Happily,” has lyrics about finding “my traces in your hair” (OF WHAT?) and Liam and Louis’ The-Who-goes-pop-rock ode to a lady in a “Little Black Dress” entreats “I wanna see the way you move with me.” Niall Horan also tried his hand at songwriting, partnering with members of British pop band McFly to pen “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” a simple but sweet song about a star’s gratitude to his band mates as well as his hometown and family. “Little White Lies” and “Does He Know?” are pure fun — All Time Low meets Summer Set type alt-rock irony-in-love, all about “playing games” and asking, “Does he know you could move it like that?”

Poet Amy Saul-Zerby writes, “I will only love you when you can understand that pop music is beautiful in its own way,” and pop’s beauty comes from the way it encapsulates the raw energy and specific optimism of an era. What’s great about these songs is that they encapsulate the intent of pop music at its purest — “Right Now” (co-written by One Republic’s Ryan Tedder), “Story of My Life” and “Through the Dark” are stand-out examples of the romanticism and catchy hooks of pop. All three pair notable neo-folk influences from the likes of Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran with some of the for-the-masses poetry of bands like The Lumineers and Snow Patrol (whose Gary Lightbody co-wrote the track “Something Great”).

Although Justin Bieber tweeted his congratulations on it (“well done boyzzzzzz”), “Diana” is honestly an  dumb song — an ode to a heartbroken manic pixie dream girl, and as Harry Styles has explained, kind of a creepy tribute to one of their most active Twitter fans. “Strong,” though, is a love song’s love song — the lyrics are fresh, if sometimes confusing (how can hands be tied together like ships?), and it reads to me like a backlash … to the love song backlash. Where Lorde was recently quoted in The Fader on her hatred of the portrayal of adolescent romance in contemporary music saying, “This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, don’t leave me stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear,” Zayn Malik takes the lead vocals on “Strong” and asks, “I’m sorry if I say ‘I need you,’ but I don’t care … is it so wrong? That you make me strong?” Not that Lorde doesn’t have a point (given that her comment was directed at Lana Del Ray’s oeuvre of cocaine-charged brooding about a Coca-Cola-flavored vagina and a series of nefarious men referred to as “Daddy”), but pop music isn’t about telling people to wait until they’re older to take their own emotions seriously. The fact that One Direction recognizes the poignant and the flighty, the powerful and the frivolous, as equally legitimate sources for art is surely part of what makes them so insanely appealing.

The phase of life that is solely about “stumbling down the street, singing, singing, singing” about some “midnight memories” is just as valid as any other.