By Mikael Wood
9:00 AM EST, November 26, 2013
The new One Direction album sounds like it was designed to win over (or perhaps further irritate) people likely to scoff at the idea that this British outfit is the biggest band on the planet.
The scale of its success seems beyond dispute, with 16 million Twitter followers, 35 million albums sold worldwide and well over 1 billion views of its videos on YouTube — all in the two years since the group released its debut in 2011. Coldplay and Foo Fighters can't even get in the same room to compete.
Yet One Direction's origin story, as five super-cute solo contestants thrown together on the U.K. version of "The X Factor," triggers skepticism among believers in bands as vehicles for certain creative traditions: writing your own songs, say, or jamming with guys you've known since childhood.
None of that could possibly matter less on "Midnight Memories," easily the year's most convincing rock album and one that suggests that the genre has, like all other genres in 2013, broken free of its own foundations.
Here there are spirited, pitch-perfect replicas of the Who's power-chord bombast ("Best Song Ever"), Van Halen's louche boogie ("Little Black Dress") and Def Leppard's stadium-sized glam ("Midnight Memories").
In "Does He Know?," a bonus track from the album's deluxe edition, the band helps itself to the instantly recognizable riff from "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield, while "You & I" could be a cover of Bryan Adams' early-'80s ballad "Heaven."
Overall, the record presents a rowdier, more guitar-oriented sound than One Direction's previous efforts, which made greater use of synthetic club beats and R&B-style singing and featured songwriting and production input from Top 40 wizards such as Dr. Luke, RedOne and Shellback. (This time the group's collaborators include Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic — not exactly a Mt. Rushmore of rock, but a telling lineup for an act of talent-show veterans.)
The group has been affecting a studied looseness onstage, as well: Roaming around in front of a capacity crowd at Staples Center, where One Direction played four sold-out concerts in August, the choreography-averse quintet came across more like the Rolling Stones in 1965 than the Backstreet Boys in 1997 — especially Harry Styles, the band's de facto frontman, who'd even adopted Keith Richards' debauched-pirate head-scarf look.
Styles went further on Sunday's American Music Awards, pushing his voice during the new album's "Story of My Life" beyond the usual boy-band precision into a kind of tortured man-bellow. By established One Direction standards, this was basically Eddie Vedder doing Pearl Jam's "Jeremy."
So having fully conquered the moms-and-daughters set that propelled them to stardom, are Styles and his bandmates now gunning for the dads who've begrudgingly chaperoned their girls at One Direction gigs across the land?
Maybe. Even if they're hitting all kinds of dad-rock pleasure centers on "Midnight Memories," though, the lyrics are sure to alarm parents on the lookout for teenage dirtbags, to borrow the title of the Wheatus song One Direction covered on its most recent tour.
"Your eyes keep saying things," "She kissed me like she meant it," "I wanna see the way you move for me" — you get the picture.
Then again, the One Direction machine has grown too large (and too lucrative) to risk truly alienating anyone, which is why "Midnight Memories" offsets the lively bad-boy stuff with a handful of swooning folk-pop numbers seemingly inspired by the good-guy likes of Travis and Mumford & Sons.
The band and its enablers are no less expert at reproducing this more genteel style; "Through the Dark," for instance, is a shuffling acoustic ditty complete with overblown words about fighting through fire and water for someone's love. It could be, rather tragically, by the Lumineers.
But One Direction in pure thirsting-for-respect mode is nobody's idea of a good time.
What makes songs like "Diana" and "Little White Lies" so much fun is that you can hear a bit of the laughing contempt the band holds for those unwilling to take it seriously — the same contempt, it should be noted, that the Who and Van Halen once oozed before they became Hall of Famers.
These sounds are ours to use now, the music seems to say. You really think you can stop us?
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