Riding the Boy Band Wave While It Lasts

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A boy band is no thing to be in 2012, not when you know how it invariably ends: overblown third and fourth and fifth albums, intraband strife, the unfulfilled desire to be taken seriously, stratification of members from dreamiest to Styrofoam — iest. The template isn’t really a skeleton upon which new skin and muscle can be hung so much as a predetermined career arc that offers answers long before questions get asked.


Might as well speed through all the steps, then. And there is the sense that One Direction is rushing through its gestation period on the way to the magic that may await on the other side. This week the band released its second album, “Take Me Home” (SYCO/Columbia), which comes only a year after its first, which has already gone platinum (eight months if you’re talking United States release dates).
It is frenzy-inducing at a level lower than Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift but not much else, a reliable shriek inducer in girls who have not yet decided that shrieking doesn’t become them.
One Direction will have its own pop-up shop in Herald Square in Manhattan beginning on Saturday. The band is already in the process of filming a movie — in 3-D of course — that will be directed by Morgan Spurlock. It has already booked tour dates in huge rooms, Madison Square Garden included; it only needs enough material to fill the air.




The songs — well, they’re just the coal that keeps the big ship moving. And “Take Me Home” shows what happens when the offense is on autopilot and the defense gets to make all the calls.
That said, it’s not impossible that One Direction’s music could be forward looking, a novel variation on the traditional teen-pop archetypes, or even a bit clever, as it was on the group’s debut, “Up All Night.”
But this new album is far more mechanical than that one. Even at its best, “Take Me Home” is rhythmically unsophisticated and cleaner than most Disney pop. All the band members — Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne — have distinct but fundamentally interchangeable voices. Only Mr. Malik breaks free from the pack vocally with any regularity.
The sketches of many songs are the same, metronomic rock-inherited pop. At times, like on “Live While We’re Young” and “Last First Kiss,” they achieve a fast-food sort of satisfaction, filling and familiar and not disruptive in any way. In many places, the ways the syllables sound are more important than the words being said.
The songs produced by Julian Bunetta — which tend to start out with more breathing room, giving the guys a chance to show off vocally — are among the best here, especially the winningly chaotic “I Would,” which contains the hilarious admission, “I can’t compete with your boyfriend/He’s got 27 tattoos.”
Given how narrow the subject matter can be, one ends up sussing out which songs sneak in the bawdiest allusions. “If you don’t wanna take it slow/And you just wanna take me home/Baby say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the guys sing on “Kiss You.” On the single “Live While We’re Young” they tease, or threaten, “And if we get together/Yeah get together/Don’t let the pictures leave your phone.”
Hiding in plain sight isn’t a recipe for adult success, of course. Two albums in, and One Direction has barely shown a flicker of interest in doing something beyond riding this particular merry-go-round. There’s plenty of territory the group might want to conquer once it’s unshackled from expectations.
One of the least likely answers to that conundrum would be Ed Sheeran’s muscular pop-folk, one of the most successful contemporary modes of British pop. And yet that’s just what One Direction aims for on this album, importing Mr. Sheeran to collaborate on a pair of songs, “Little Things” and “Over Again,” that are miles apart from the Tinkertoys songwriting on the rest of the album, and which show that the young men of One Direction aren’t quite ready for a new blueprint.
The curious emphases in Mr. Sheeran’s rhyme schemes read as unusually lumpy in the hands of such a polished group. He also gives the boys songs that don’t in any way feel tailored to them. That’s especially the case on “Little Things,” which sounds as if it’s written for a relationship in midlife crisis:
I know you’ve never loved the crinkles by your eyes
When you smile, you’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs
The dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine
But I’ll love them endlessly
This is one way to attempt to be taken seriously, and one way to fail, and therefore an absolutely acceptable and expected part of the boy band narrative arc. But certainly this misstep will send the group foraging in other directions — maybe thoughtful club-soul like Jessie Ware, or sensuous dance-pop like Katy B, or more traditional American-style R&B-driven boy band fare. On the bright side there are plenty of mistakes they’ve yet to make.

Thoughts? 

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