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.
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."