The early-’00s rivalry between Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync was ostensibly ridiculous frivolity, even if it continues to have a prickly side rooted in actual sour feelings. Still, the perceived competition had the effect of pushing each group to step up its pop game, whether with juggernaut radio singles (Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) or boundary-pushing music (’N Sync’s edgier Celebrity). When One Direction arrived on the pop scene in 2011, it appeared to have a similar foil in fellow English-Irish boy band The Wanted. But as it turns out, that rivalry was rather one-sided; in fact, The Wanted recently split, allegedly in part because of One Direction’s domination. Other potential competitors—namely, pop-punk upstarts 5 Seconds Of Summer—have turned out to be more of a strategic ally than anything.
That lack of a challenge to One Direction’s supremacy is apparent on its latest record, Four, which lacks the creative urgency of 2013’s Midnight Memories. In fact, this album resembles Backstreet Boys’ Black & Blue, the release directly after the blockbuster Millennium. While Black & Blue had impeccable production and can’t-miss pop hits, it also played things safe, sticking to sensitive romantic balladry and other well-worn musical ideas. Four is also enjoyable yet somewhat complacent—the album is dominated by pastel synth washes and inoffensive whiffs of EDM, as well as midtempo syrupy croons (“Fool’s Gold,” “Night Changes”) and sonic retreads (“Ready To Run” is a redux of Midnight Memories’ “Story Of My Life,” down to the plaintive acoustic guitar on the verses and the stacked choruses). Lyrically, the members of One Direction are also taking no chances: On most songs, they acquiesce humbly to the superiority and beauty of women, whether they’re consummating a long-time crush (“18”) or simply celebrating the overall awesomeness of ladies (“Girl Almighty”).
What’s frustrating is that these guys have it in them to be pop rebels. They reportedly wrote with The 1975’s Matt Healy and The Madden Brothers prior to this record (although the results of these sessions didn’t make the album), and they’ve never been afraid to throw curveballs. On Four, these moments are actually most engaging. The jaunty, breezy tune “Girl Almighty” effectively uses the Paul Simon-via-Vampire Weekend indie-pop filter; “Clouds” has a snaky classic-rock guitar underbelly that exhibits bite; and the gauzy, soft-glow “Fireproof” approximates Fleetwood Mac’s synthpop-leaning ’80s output. Even better is the blocky dancepop chug “Stockholm Syndrome”—which resembles lightweight Disclosure—and the undeniable, sky-scraping “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” an electro-tweaked harmony explosion that’s tailor-made for stadiums full of hollering fans.
Certainly by now the members of One Direction are aware that they can’t risk alienating this dedicated fan base; in fact, Four is preaching to the converted rather than attempting to win over new followers. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, as the record is yet another perfect encapsulation of modern pop music. Yet, in the process, the band has shed the scrappiness and spunk that made its early music so endearing. That retreat from distinct personality—something the members possess in spades—is perhaps the most disappointing thing about Four.