One Direction—Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson—formed in 2010 on the U.K. TV show The X Factor. The quintet became an immediate sensation, a position it’s maintained thanks to a cheeky interview style, tabloid drama, and adorable mugs. However, the group members also possess not-insignificant musical talent, including the ability to harmonize effortlessly on command. For example, a video of an acoustic version of “What Makes You Beautiful” impresses despite the band’s lethargy.
On Midnight Memories, One Direction is obviously taking steps to assert its maturity and capitalize on such talent. Certainly these are baby steps: The record’s themes mainly focus on eternal love or situations where the perfect man (a member of 1D, of course) sweeps a lady off her feet. But the lyrics do reference “stumbling in the street” after a party, and the electronica seduction “Little White Lies” is full of digital manipulation and risqué innuendo (“Tonight, I know what you want / And I’ve been waiting so long”).
As the latter lyric indicates, the band members are now experienced enough musicians to handle more grown-up songs. In fact, their voices have matured and deepened enough so they don’t sound ridiculous on Midnight Memories’ more adult material—bouncy Mumford & Sons/Lumineers-esque strums (“Through The Dark,” “Happily”), syrupy soft rock ballads (“You & I”), or raucous glam (the title track and its Mutt Lange-era Def Leppard flourishes). “Best Song Ever,” a perfect bubblegum-pop earworm, even transcends its boy-band appeal.
One Direction also flexes its collective songwriting mettle; nearly every song has a co-writing credit from one (or more) members of the group. These aren’t token credits, either. The piano-based midtempo rocker “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” a collaboration between Horan and the members of OG U.K. pop band McFly, is a moving song about keeping loneliness at bay by staying grounded and retaining roots. Tomlinson co-wrote the Backstreet Boys doppelganger “Strong,” whose vulnerability in the face of love is refreshing (“’Cause when I’m not with you I’m weaker / Is that so wrong?”), while all five band members had a hand in the fun ’80s AOR homage “Little Black Dress,” which merges PG-rated lustful lyrics with flashy electric guitars.
As is the case with many albums that want to be taken seriously, Midnight Memories can go overboard on the mellow fare. The Ryan Tedder co-written “Right Now” sounds like a watered-down version of his band OneRepublic’s soulful vanilla pop, while Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and Jacknife Lee combine for an utterly forgettable slice of twinkly pop called “Something Great.” Bland songs like these ensure that as a whole, Midnight Memories isn’t a genre game-changer. But in terms of the One Direction catalog, this record is exactly the right move: There’s enough personality, charm, and dramatic solos to satisfy fans, and enough incremental moves toward artistic credibility to at least give the band a chance at an enduring career.