It took four years and as many albums for One Direction to finally shed its skin as a cutesy boy band. “Four,” the English quintet’s new studio album, is the first one that doesn’t immediately summon memories of “The X Factor,” the British TV singing competition that launched the band’s star in 2010.
Let’s not overstate it: “Four” does not break or even bend any rules in pop music, and it certainly doesn’t aim to be cutting edge. Its mix of driving power pop, muscular harmonies, and acoustic alchemy is as manicured as the group’s previous bestsellers. But it also hints at a broader future for the lads — Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson — where they’re not boxed in as tween sensations.
Stylistically adventurous, “Four” is guided by a bigger-is-better principle. The opening power chords of “Steal My Girl” stir memories of Bruce Springsteen circa “Born to Run,” with a pummeling chorus that hits the back of the stadium. “18,” a co-write with fellow English pop star Ed Sheeran, tugs at teenage heartstrings: “I have loved you since we were 18.”
“Night Changes” floats to an airy melody tinged with Beach Boys-like harmonies, and “Fireproof” is about as soft rock as Top 40 gets. “No Control” and “Stockholm Syndrome” venture into spiky indie rock with synth-pop overtones, and “Fool’s Gold” unexpectedly recoils to let the voices twinkle up close.
As seamless as the songs sound, the credits reveal chunky paragraphs with long lists of writers, producers, and players. Apparently it takes a village to hold up One Direction; to their credit, each band member was involved in the songwriting. (Out now)
ESSENTIAL “Steal My Girl”