Album Review: One Direction Aren't Ready to Let Go of Their Bubble-Gum Days on 'Four'

Album Review
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Since they bounded onto the pop scene with their double-platinum debut, Up All Night, in 2012 (2011 in the United Kingdom), the members of One Direction have barely stopped to catch their breath, as if they have been watching the clock ticking on their boy-band shelf life the entire time. Capitalizing on its window of opportunity, 1D has cranked out its fourth album in three years. The not-so-creatively titled Four finds the British quintet experiencing some growing pains as they attempt to evolve from boys to men -- and wind up caught in limbo. It's a tricky transition that New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and others never successfully navigated. Welcome to 1D's awkward phase.

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Four tempers bursts of youthful exuberance in the vein of "Live While We're Young" or the "Teenage Wasteland"-biting "Best Song Ever" with mellow, even melancholy moments that are intended to reflect the group's maturation. But generally, the band doesn't fare as well on the slow stuff, from the tepid "Fireproof" to "Spaces," which, despite setting its downbeat lyrics to a stadium-size thump, is a yawn. Not surprisingly, the best ballad is "18"; like Take Me Home's "Little Things," it was co-written by Ed Sheeran. It's another folky beauty on which a wistful 1D pines for its teenage years, singing, "I want to love like you made me feel when we were 18."

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Elsewhere, the band doesn't sound entirely ready to let go of its bubble-gum days. "Girl Almighty," with its giddy guitar-pop bounce, is foot-stomping fun, taking their puppy love to new levels ("I'd get down on my knees for you"). Meanwhile, the punky "No Control" is hard to resist for its unbridled peppiness. But the synth-pop throb of "Stockholm Syndrome" -- and its iffy hostage metaphor ("Baby I'll never leave if you keep holding me this way") -- fail to hold you captive. The latter is one of 10 tunes that at least one member had a hand in penning, continuing the greater songwriting role they took on 2013's Midnight Memories. (And Graffiti6's Jamie Scott, co-writing seven songs, remains 1D's unofficial sixth member.)

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But none of these tracks can match the best cuts on the act's first two albums for sheer catchiness. As singles go, "Steal My Girl" is no "What Makes You Beautiful," but its Coldplay-lite piano pop could be a good direction if 1D really wants to play with the big boys.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of Billboard.