Boy bands are like goldfish prizes from a town fair: Nobody knows what to do with them after the novelty wears off. If you’re *NSYNC or New Kids on the Block, you just break up and then snap back for the odd tour or halftime show. If you’re Menudo, you regenerate prepubescent heads for decades, like a sequin-shirted Hydra. If you’re the Backstreet Boys or Boyz II Men, you try your best to age gracefully into bald spots and nostalgia tours.
One Direction have been around since 2010, making the group about 49 in Twitter years — ripe for a midlife crisis. Which is why it’s nice to hear them sounding more confident than ever on Four, their unimaginatively named fourth LP. There’s no pandering for tween relevance, nary an ”OMG” nor an EDM interlude. In fact, most of the album could qualify as neo-folkie classic rock, like Phillip Phillips karaoke-ing Bryan Adams in a Journey T-shirt. Power chords and shout-alongs abound, with the quintet emoting about love over organic-sounding drums and strings. This works well on the album’s first half, where the melodies are sturdy and the lyrics catchy (”Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” ”18”). Later, the titles get sillier (”Stockholm Syndrome”), and the guitar-jam vibe turns as dull as every real-life guitar jam. But when Four ends, your ears are guilt-free, which is a new feat for Harry, Liam, Zayn, Louis, and Niall. They’re all in their 20s now — not boys anymore. And Four is solid enough to make you interested in the men they’ll become. B-