After conquering the pop world over a three-year span with their many hit singles, two chart-topping albums, a box office smash concert film, and sold-out arena tours, it would be understandable if the lads of One Direction took some time off to regroup and pursue other things like having lives, taking film roles, or embarking on solo projects.
They did nothing of the sort, and their third album in three years, Midnight Memories, rolled off the production line right on time for the holidays.
Anyone expecting there to be any kind of drop in quality, or early warnings that the group had begun their inevitable decline, will be happily surprised that not only does the album satisfy the established quota of thrilling modern pop tracks and uplifting ballads, but also introduces some interesting new directions: one direction that makes sense in the music landscape of 2013, and one that comes out of nowhere.
In that first category are the songs, like "Through the Dark" and "Something Great" that sound heavily influenced by the inescapably popular upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven folk-pop of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons.
Even though their cleaned-up take sounds a little on the slick side, the group deliver the lyrics with a clear-voiced enthusiasm that is infectious and helps them go down smoothly.
The direction that's a bit of a shock comes to the fore on songs like the title track and "Little Black Dress." With their distorted power chords, tightly wound rhythms, and punchy vocals, they sound like an uncanny mashup of Rick Springfield circa "Jessie's Girl and "Pour Some Sugar on Me"-era Def Leppard.
It's a fun left turn that works really well, as the guys' voices are surprisingly sassy and show off some spunky rock & roll attitude.
These stylistic diversions show two paths the band could take in the future if they decide to evolve and discard their pop sound entirely.
Not that their sound doesn't work here, as there are plenty of tracks that will undoubtedly show up (alongside the title track) on their Greatest Hits collection.
"Best Song Ever" is a buoyant, instantly catchy radio hit that may not be the best song ever, but it may be theirs, the dramatic "Diana" adds a little bit of adult feeling into the mix, and the cinematically swoony ballad "You & I" shows that the group have a sure-handed way with a big ballad and can tap into some real emotion.
Not many acts have blown up as much as One Direction have in such a short time and managed to stay on track; even fewer have tried to grow musically, even a little bit.
One Direction and the team have done exactly that here, and when the album ends and the various styles, songs, and moods are added up, Midnight Memories ends up as another satisfying album that does everything a One D album should do and then some.