Throughout their two studio albums, the fresh-faced young skanks in One Direction have released only one song longer than four minutes. Maybe that’s the maximum length of their conquests. “Tonight let’s get some,” they sing in their latest hit single, “Live While We’re Young”, “and if we get together, don’t let the pictures leave your phone.” They pulled their wistful album title Take Me Home from the awesome “Kiss Me”, in which they sing to a new friend, “If you don’t wanna TAKE.. IT… SLOW… / And you just wanna TAKE… ME… HOME… / Baby say yeahyeahyeahhhhh.” (Cue a stadium full of tween girls answering, “Yeahyeahyeahhhhh.”) After an opening guitar riff resembling Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, they turn “Change My Mind” into an afterparty sex jam: “We should say goodbye / Baby if you say you want me to stay / Stay for the night / I’ll change my mind.” The song neatly encapsulates the insecurities that plague the minds of sex addicts. We could go on and on.
Half the songs on Home, including those three, were co-written and produced by American Savan Kotecha and the Swedes Carl Falk and Rami Yacoub. (Yacoub did a bunch of those early Backstreet and Britney singles with Max Martin, the Swedish genius of gargantuan pop.) This team also produced One Direction’s “One Thing” and “What Makes You Beautiful”, two of 2012’s best singles, for their previous album, Up All Night. With One Direction, they’ve perfected a formula that’s powerful in its efficiency.
The five Englishmen, aged 19 to 21, trade off on half verses and choruses and layer their background vocals, giving their short songs unexpected variety. The songs borrow elements from previous songs — the opening guitar riff of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”, hooks and harmonies from Backstreet’s “I Want It That Way” — and cram them into tight song structures. Their backbeats have real no-nonsense SNAP, sometimes emphasized by a whoosh leading into the snare hits, the aural equivalent of healthy young revelers bounding along the beach and slapping high fives.
Which, if you’ve seen the video for “Beautiful”, seems to be how One Direction spend most of their days. Though they address all their songs to some ever-changing cipher named Girl, young women hardly appear in their videos, which are instead odes to frisky bonhomie. The Directions would rather spend time frolicking with one another: sleeping together in a tent, splashing one another in the pool, collapsing into a heap, gesticulating wildly. In the video for second single “Little Things”, a ballad that helpfully lists Girl’s insecurities so One Direction can assure her they don’t matter, the young men sit in a circle singing the song to one another and grinning. This imagery is lifted from the Beatles (“Look how much fun it is to be in a band!”) more than it is homoerotic, notwithstanding the Tobias Fünke-worthy line, “I won’t let these little things slip out of my mouth.”
Taylor Swift’s current album Red is better than Home in nearly every way, but they do share certain traits. Home contains two Yacoub-produced fast-into-slow anthems, “Kiss Me” and “Back For You”, similar to Swift’s dubstep foray “I Knew You Were Trouble”, produced by Max Martin and Shellback. Yacoub’s “Heart Attack” has the same stuttering beat as Swift’s “22”, which has the same beat as Miranda Cosgrove’s flabbergastingly great “Dancing Crazy”, both also produced by Martin and Shellback. (“Heart Attack” is the least of the three, but it does contain some goofy falsetto “owww!”s.) Most glaringly, both albums bear the sodden touch of English troubadour Ed Sheeran, who duets with Swift and helped write the ballads “Little Things” and “Over Again” for One Direction. The singers try to save the latter by overenunciating angrily like they’re extras in Les Mis. It doesn’t work.
More often, the members of One Direction wear their songs lightly, as though gamely stringing together clichés while they wait to get laid. Fittingly for an album whose most-uttered word is “whoa,” they seem perpetually awed by their good fortune and the beauty of whoever happens to be standing nearby. They mug their way through the stadium stomper “Rock Me” (“R.O.C.K. me again,” they elaborate) and “Last First Kiss”, a country song with pop production. They worry about a jealous tattooed boyfriend looking inside their brains in “I Would”. (“Would he say he’s in L.O.V.E.? / Well if it was me, then I would” — see how easy love is?) But on the amazing, euphoric “C’mon, C’mon”, co-written by Jamie Scott of Brit-pop outfit Graffiti6, their harmonies erupt into life on the dance floor: “The one that I came with / She had to go / But you look amazing.” These may be the least articulate cads on the pop charts, but their beats speak volumes.