On one hand, One Direction’s new single “Drag Me Down” offers the “mature” sound that the group members has been boasting about in the lead-up to their fifth studio album. If 2014’s Four found the boys still dabbling in mid-70’s arena-rock, this quick, unfussy track is a graduation to the shimmering pop-rock melodies of the Police and Fleetwood Mac. However, “Drag Me Down” also teeters upon an age-old theme for pop groups: fan appreciation. On its first single without recently departed member Zayn Malik — and its first since its five-year anniversary as a group — One Direction romantically alludes to the diehard Directioners and their place in the group’s phenomenal run of success; it’s basically the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” with a slightly less bombastic guitar riff.
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Not that that’s a bad thing: the lyrics to “Drag Me Down” coolly encourage enthusiasm and make up for the lack of showy instrumentation with some blazingly ostentatious metaphors. “I got a river for a soul, and baby, you’re a boat,” Harry Styles declares unflinchingly on the first verse, while Liam Payne thumps his chest on the chorus with, “All these lights, they can’t blind me/With your love, nobody can drag me down.” The song hums along with a playful back-and-forth between the guitar and bass, and if the hooks aren’t as delectable as they are on the group’s past hits, they at least come close. The best news for One Direction fans is that the quartet does not sound incomplete: the group compensates for Malik’s absence by giving each member ample time to shine, and the harmonies admirably resonate on the call-and-response portions of the pre-chorus.
One Direction is prodding at some intriguing sonic textures here, but they’re far from unrecognizable. For those worried that a four-member incarnation of the group can’t get the job done, “Drag Me Down” assuages those fears by keeping the overall quality level high.