One Direction suffers growing pains on spotty ‘Midnight Memories’: Album review

One Direction has been tremendously prolific during its short shelf life as dominant boy band of the 2010s. Out today, “Midnight Memories,” their third full studio album released in 20 months in the U.S., tries to extend the British quintet”s 15 minutes of fame by pushing them into a rockier direction with mixed results. Gone, for the most part, are some of the dance/pop elements that guided the past two efforts.

On the plus side, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson deliver their most self-assured strongest vocals yet, which is no surprise as they”ve grown more comfortable with each other since being packaged by Simon Cowell for “The X Factor.”  On many of the tracks, they”ve embraced an Americana/folk vibe popularized by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, and it works well for them. On the negative side, too many of the edgier songs here sound forced as if the addition of a jagged guitar will suddenly make them a rock band. That”s not going to happen, though as songs like “Midnight Memories” show, they are capable of pushing themselves a little. Additionally, too many of the songs are generic. Their material doesn”t rise to the level of what their voices can do.

By their very nature, acts like One Direction flame out so no one came blame 1D for trying to stoke the fire as much as they can. But the way to do that isn”t to keep flooding the market with albums that have as many weak songs as strong ones. The key is to take a little more time and come back with an album that is undeniably consistently good throughout. There are some very worthwhile tracks here, but the group needs to focus more on upping the overall level of the material. 

“Best Song Ever”: Parents got drawn in by the “Baba O”Riley”-like intro, while their daughters were captivated by the high energy song that brought both a pop sheen and a live verve to the otherwise bubblegum track. The album”s first single peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.  GRADE: B+

“Story of My Life”: One Direction meets Mumford & Sons and Lumineers and Ed Sheeran on this elegant, spare, largely acoustic mid-tempo, chugging track about the pasts that we all carry around with us. Peaked at No. 6 in the U.S., but should have been bigger. It will become one of the band”s defining songs. GRADE: A

“Diana”: The band bounces back to the ’80s with a drum beat straight out of the Police”s “Don”t Stand So Close to Me” on this track about a missing girl the protagonist wants to save, but it turns out she”d really be saving him. The words and the Robin Sparkle vibe don”t really mix. Peppy track gets dragged down by clumsy lyrics. GRADE: C

“Midnight Memories”:
Well, here”s something we haven”t heard from 1D before: a rock and roll tune that delightfully recalls ’80s rock, complete with the hand clapping and guitar that wants to rock harder than the song warrants. The execution isn”t quite what it should be and they”re punching above their weight here, but it”s such a fun change of pace for them and its anthemic feel will make it a live stand out. Just “sing it, sing it, sing it.”  GRADE: B

“You and I”: It should be “between you and me,” boys, not “you and I,” but who are we to let grammar get between us and an elegant ballad that will have the long time fans waving their cell phones in the air as the boys sing, “You and I, we don”t want to be like them. We can make it to the end. Nothing can come between you and I. Not even the gods above can separate the two of us.” This is the kind of song that 15-year old girls put on repeat as they clutch their pillows. Having been a 15-year old girl once, trust me, that is a big compliment. Could be massive. GRADE: B+

“Don”t Forget Where You Belong”:
This mid-tempo track could serve as a letter to themselves about remembering where they came from and a reminder that, just like at a  Motel 6, there will always be a light on to guide you home. Pedestrian and generic, but still catchy. GRADE: B-

“Strong”: His weakness is his greatest strength in this mid-tempo tune about being a better man when his girl is by his side.  GRADE: C

“Happily”: Back to the Lumineers-like guitar/banjo acoustic stomp on this track about chasing a girl who belongs to another. There”s even a “hey!” in the background. One of the catchiest tracks on the set, it”s a pop hootenanny that feels like it should be paired with Taylor Swift”s “Mean.” The “We”re on fire” now refrain into the chorus is pretty irresistible. GRADE: B+

“Right Now”: Echo-y atmospherics and strong vocals take precedence over a catchy melody in this moody, big-drummed mid-tempo tale of longing co-written by OneRepublic”s Ryan Tedder (and, boy, is his handiwork all over it). When they sing, “Let”s go crazy together” it conjures up images of staying out 30 minutes past curfew than truly letting loose. Even GRADE: C

“Little Black Dress”: The tune ultimately doesn”t work, but One Direction is trying so hard to break out of the pop mold that you have to give them props for this song that takes a swaggering guitar rock part and molds it around a line about “I want to see the way you move for me baby.”   A loose-limbed delivery helps, but ultimately they can”t sell the promise of the song, though it sure is fun to see them try. GRADE: B-

“Through The Dark”: An acoustic guitar-based strumming mid-tempo track that, like “Story of My Life,” recalls Mumford & Sons in both tone and message:  “When the night is coming down on you, we will find a way through the dark.” This is 1D”s sweet spot. It”s effortless  and doesn”t feel forced. Should be a definite single. GRADE: A

“Something Great”: Snow Patrol”s Gary Lightbody is one of the co-writers here, along with 1D”s Harry Styles and Snow Patrol producer Jacknife Lee, which explains the overall sweep and grandeur of the song. It”s hard to hear the ringing refrain and not imagine Lightbody singing it. The opening choral sounds are already being used in commercials so expect this one to grow on you as you hear it more and more.  GRADE: B

“Little White Lies”: Some vixen has captured the guys” hearts in this driving pop track that shifts gears into a dub-step feel. Their vocals are fine, but the mid-tempo song never gets out of first. GRADE: C

“Better Than Words”: Wave your hand in the air like you just don”t care on this mid-tempo tune about trying to describe the indescribable joy your love brings. One of the more disposable tracks on the set.  GRADE: C