One Direction's new album Four leaked over the weekend, and it's way better than it has any right to be. Wait, wait, wait—I know you think you don't give a shit about One Direction. But while you've been busy aggressively avoiding them, the British boyband has evolved from cuddly-cute Euro-poptarts into a bunch of beautiful long-legged diet Springsteens (albeit less in political inclination than in "Hell yeah!" attitude and commercial accessibility). Four is a lively 80s throwback adventure awash in power guitar chords, piano, anthemic choruses, and walls of harmonies. It's a vibe that totally suits them.
The five members of One Direction—Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson—are not the cleverest or most adventurous dudes in pop music. The band exists by chance and the good grace of Simon Cowell, not because they came to the table with much to offer beyond charm. It'd be a waste to expect from them some kind of game-changing tour de force. But with nearly a billion dollars in earnings and enough fans to qualify for United Nations representation, they must know how easy it would be to phone it in until their contracts run out, make a couple albums of bullshit pop, and coast to an early retirement. But instead they've seized the massive opportunities afforded them and are making a concerted effort to dig out their own sound, to develop their musicality and songwriting skills into something worthy of their hyped-up legion of fans. Four is an improvement for them on every level: it’s smarter lyrically, warmer emotionally, and considerably more cohesive than any of their three previous studio outings.
As their venue sizes have grown (they're heading out on their second worldwide stadium tour in February), the music has expanded to fill them. The farmhouse folk-pop quality of the band's ubiquitous single "Story of My Life" late last year felt at the time like a calculated move to stay on trend with chart toppers like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, but it turns out it was foreshadowing. While their third album Midnight Memories was a game but unwieldy effort to bridge the gap between pop and rock, Four sees the band diving full-on into Dad Rock mode. (Which, by the way, is a good thing: Anyone who thinks this isn't a compliment has forgotten the life-affirming simplicity of a solid guitar line and a shout-able chorus.) The boys' relief to have escaped the cookie cutter confines of their X-Factor roots is palpable.
For one thing, the songwriting's gotten better. Payne and Tomlinson have taken on the bulk of the co-writing credits here as they did on Midnight Memories (working again with a team that includes Julian Bunetta, Jamie Scott, and John Ryan), but this time the effort feels more deliberate. The pair are both in long-term relationships and that influence has helped to push the nudge-wink flirtiness of their earlier songs into a kind of lived-in sexiness that's apparent on tracks like "No Control" ("Taste on my tongue / I don’t want to wash away the night before") and the infectious, reverential bop "Girl Almighty" ("I get down, I get down, I get down on my knees for you"). "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" is an arena rock jam destined for the fist-pump freeze frame ending of a Breakfast Club remake. Harry admitted with a shit-eating grin in an interview over the weekend that "Stockholm Syndrome" is "about a nympho," and between its lyrical allusions to enjoying a bit of light bondage and its sexy "Bad"-era staccato beat, it's one of the hottest, catchiest songs they've recorded.
There's also a newfound confidence in their vocals. Styles' raspy tone sounds much more at home in this sort of rock sound than it ever did on bubblegum pop. Horan and Tomlinson, who barely advanced beyond backup vocals on their debut, have really leveled up here; Horan flexes an appealing growl on that first verse of "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and Tomlinson's reedy tenor is in especially fine form on "No Control," punching out the chorus like the vocal equivalent of a pelvic thrust. Payne and Malik are still the workhorse vocalists of the group, providing much-needed texture and the occasional showboating flourish. It's Malik's lush falsetto melisma on lead single "Steal My Girl" that really kicks the song into gear.
The songs aren't all winners. "Ready to Run," which takes the same chord progressions from "Story of My Life" and swaps in marginally better lyrics, absolutely belongs on the soundtrack of an inspirational movie about a teen girl at equestrian camp. 1D's pal Ed Sheeran is responsible for the blah "18," a too-cheesy ode to young love that we've all heard a million times before. And I'm still waiting for an explanation behind the choice of "Night Changes" as the second single. Other than a nice key change, it's uninspired. But not even a truly unfortunate Casio keyboard drum loop can detract from the gorgeous, ghost-like harmonies of "Fireproof." And I'm straight-up obsessed with "Fool's Gold," a frank admission that sometimes false love is better than none at all. It's the best they've ever sounded, and the most perceptive: "I knew that you turned it on for everyone you met / But I don’t regret falling for your fool's gold."
The bar for boybands is low. We've come to expect a few years of bombast from groups like this, then a soft slope down toward a break-up, followed by D-list name recognition punctuated with the occasional guest spot on Dancing with the Stars or an US Weekly wedding headline. But four albums into global success no one could have predicted, One Direction aren't getting the hint to wrap it up. They know you're out here side-eyeing their reality show roots, deriding their young female fanbase, and dismissing their shiny pop sound, and not only are they not bothered, they've used that blind hatred to broaden their ambitions beyond what their critics think they deserve. Four is a focused, genuinely fun pop-rock album, and a sign of truly promising growth that isn't likely to taper off soon. "And we go and we go and we don't stop," they sing in the sprawling breakdown of the ambitious, punk-tinged closer "Clouds." It's not a threat, it's an invitation to take them seriously. What's your excuse?
Laura Reineke has been a queen since she was 16. Follow her on Twitter.