After two albums of flirting, hand-holding and coltish fumbling at parties, One Direction might just have finally gone all the way on their third album, Midnight Memories. Maybe.
There is a track on the deluxe edition – widely disseminated online – called Why Don't We Go There, in which Harry Styles propositions some nubile interlocutor. "We got all night," he reasons, "we're going nowhere/ Why don't you stay?/ Why don't we go… there?" he asks, eyebrow cocked. "If you give in tonight/ Just let me set you free." If you are a squeaky-clean boy band attempting to manage a transition into your 20s, naming your ever-so-slightly-more-grown-up album Midnight Memories, you are probably going to have to acknowledge, somehow, that things happen in the dark other than the nonstop japery of your first album, Up All Night, and all the "going crazy-crazy-crazy till we see the sun" of album number two, Take Me Home. This is not a bad way of going about it: parking a little lust on the deluxe edition.
Then there is the small matter of the vanilla leering, which takes place on the main album. On Little Black Dress, One Direction turn from excellent boyfriend material – caring, devoted, well turned out, easily hurt – to something more akin to one-night-standees. "I wanna see the way you move for me, baby," it goes, as goaty a lyric as these nice boys have ever essayed. Poodle-rock guitars complete the picture of band slipping their hands out of yours and into their trouser pockets. (And what does Louis Tomlinson actually mean when, on Happily, he asks his ex whether her new boyfriend "feels his traces" in her hair?)
Admitting the existence of sex is not the only overt sign of looming maturity on One Direction's third album in three heady years, one that looks certain to cement them as a global phenomenon. The band forecast that Midnight Memories would be "rockier" than their previous efforts, which have largely cleaved fairly close to the bright'n'breezy Swedish school of pop-plus-doe-eyed balladry. And yet that doesn't quite prepare you for the extended soft-rock passages, the Joan Jett-ish thrust of Zayn Malik's Does He Know? or the sheer Van Halen-like bombast of the title track, one of two touring-band anthems ("Way too many people in the Addison Lee!"). Its dynamics seem to be targeting some notional American heartland at least 30 years older than 1D's fanbase.
Lady Gaga struggled a bit to carry off such a major pop-to-rock volte-face on Born This Way, but one of the theories about why Katy Perry is doing so well has something to do with her propensity for guitars. Here, this new taste for Def Leppard comes tempered with some even more grown-up fare: a Mumfords nod, a Police tribute and a flaccid one co-written by Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody (Something Great). Most Directioners will already have heard the Mumfords-inspired Story of My Life, in which some sort of romantic contretemps finds the boys in a darkroom in the video, developing photographs (a mysterious practice that may have to be explained to their fanbase). The catchy Diana, meanwhile, is a naked rewrite of at least three songs of some vintage, not least Don't Stand So Close to Me.
Given how Miley Cyrus has handled her transition from teen star to adult material, all eyes are on how these 20-nothing pop powerhouses manage their progression from pecks on the cheeks to kissing with tongues, from scallywaggery to manhood. Ultimately, the vast bulk of Midnight Memories remains emotionally charged rather than carnally inclined, with not a soupçon of R&B anywhere and love songs galore.
What's really significant, though, is that the band are now co-writing greater swaths of their material, and that Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Niall Horan are getting more time on the mic. A lack of democracy and asset-sharing has sunk many a band, never mind a boy band. This album does the job, in more ways than one.
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image: © Eva Rinaldi