Ryan Miller is the lead singer and guitarist in Guster, whose seventh studio album Evermotion is out January 13th on Nettwerk Records. He is also the creator and host of the Vermont PBS show Makin’ Friends with Ryan Miller, which follows Ryan as he interviews artists, craftspeople, entrepreneurs and other “high-functioning weirdos” in the Green Mountain State in an endearingly honest attempt to make new friends. He also composed scores for In a World… and Safety Not Guaranteed. He lives in Vermont with his wife and children, and may be a new fan of One Direction. You can follow Guster on Twitter here.
Prior to the undertaking of this essay, I knew exactly four things about One Direction.
1) They’re British.
2) They’re the result of a TV competition in the UK. (Specifically, they came in third during the 2010 run of The X Factor.)
3) There’s a Harry Styles in there somewhere and he’s a capital-C Celebrity.
4) They are fucking GIGANTIC. Like, stadiums and multi-platinum records and pee-your-pants-teen-scream real-deal global-domination gigantic.
How did I miss this? The “biggest-selling album worldwide of 2013”?!?! Monoculture is officially dead when a dude who listens to (or makes) music 24/7 can’t name a single song from the Biggest Band in the World.
But this, this is not a badge of pride! I love popular music. I was raised on radio (Journey, 1986, more on that later) and am a vociferous hater of the term “guilty pleasure.” So I’ve spent the past few days spinning these strapping young lads’ newest joint, 1D’s fourth album, entitled, un-curiously, Four. Spoiler alert: I like it! Mostly! Let’s go!
1. “Steal My Girl”
Maybe this should be retitled “Steal a Journey Piano Riff But Put It Over a Half-time Drum Loop.” Well, not entirely… but it is clear that the multitude of songwriters on this album are finding a ton of inspiration from your father’s junior high school playlist. (If your dad was born in the ’70s and also if your dad was me.) And then wowee, 24 seconds in, one of the biggest hooks of the whole shebang: a production trick where the track drops out underneath an alternating two-note syncopated verse vocal. It’s one of those moves that feels straight out of the Hit Song Handbook and announces: this shit is professional; game on, global audience. We ratchet to the chorus: “Everybody wants to steal my girl/Everybody wants to take her heart away.” A strange proclamation from probably some of the most confident dudes in the known universe, but we’re not really here for lyrical verisimilitude, are we? Songs by committee for the masses, engineered for maximum stickiness and ubiquity. Songs about girls. Full stop.
2. “Ready to Run”
Gives a nod to another global juggernaut: the Mumford/Lumineers/“Wake Me Up” passionate acoustic intro. I half expect a four-on-the-floor kick drum and a banjo to drop in the chorus; thankfully, we’re spared this round. We still get some distant oohs and ahhs and a refrain that feels like it was originally released on cassette tape. Even Cyndi Lauper gets a melodic wink in the middle eight (“That’s all they really want/Some fuuuuuuuuun”) but the whole thing goes down big and without too much fuss. Somewhere, Kenny Loggins is raising a glass.
3. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”
I hate that game where I bring a song to the band and inevitably someone will say, “I liked that song a lot better when it was called _______.” That said, man oh man, Belinda Carlisle, call your lawyer. I don’t even think they even changed the key of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Cool song to crib from, though! The world is ready for your comeback, Go-Go’s.
Feels like a straight-up Hot Adult Contemporary track and, lo and behold, it is in fact penned in part by Ed Sheeran. We get some Edge delay guitar, acoustic breakdowns, falsetto hooks and nostalgia galore: “I have loved you since we were 18.” Sort of an odd sentiment coming from a bunch of 21-year-olds. But point taken, gents.
5. “Girl Almighty”
Now we’re talking! Double-time! What’s up, slinky little Farfisa organ?! Oh hi there, dry-as-a-bone Lindsay Buckingham pre-chorus acoustic hook! Whaddya know, guitarmonies galore?! “There’s something happening here/I hope you feel what I’m feeling too.” I totally am, you guys! JAM JAM JAM.
6. “Fool’s Gold”
It’s junior prom and I’m a nerd and never really kissed a girl and my nerd friends all say, “DUDE, THIS IS YOUR TIME,” so I awkwardly tap Becca Brody on the shoulder and offer a vague gesticulation towards the gym floor, and then there we are, palms on each other shoulders doing some kind of wobbly box ritual where it’s clear that this is Not Happening. Regardless, it’s a moment and she’s stunning and smells nice and makes me feel OK enough and you know what, maybe everything is gonna be fine in the end. Sigh.
7. “Night Changes”
It’s not that it is Yaz’s “Only You,” but it will inevitably be someone’s “Only You.” Making out with braces was awesome and terrible.
8. “No Control”
Cool tones and I’m a sucker for handclaps. The descending melody on the last line of the chorus gets me every time. Whichever of the five credited songwriters wrote that one, I would like to buy you a really fucking fantastic sandwich. Rad.
Someone in the control room has been listening to “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac and HOLY SHIT that makes me so happy. It’s subtle and groovy and restrained and dry and the snare tone puts me on a shag rug, crushing up old weed on a vinyl album cover. This is a straight-up great recording. I wanna be in a band with these guys. More, please.
Totally competent ballad, but I can’t help feeling that we’ve been here before on this record. Classic track #10 song-dump.
11. “Stockholm Syndrome”
A buddy of mine once said that Haim sounds like the best Amy Grant song ever. If there was an app that Haim-ified a One Direction tune, we would find ourselves here. I’m into it. I had to google “Stockholm syndrome” because I thought it was a little dark for these dudes, but they managed to find a way to make it not too threatening (“Baby I’ll never leave you/if you keep holding me this way,” get it?). Maybe it would’ve been cooler if they just went all the way into a kidnapping or abduction or something? Or maybe that’s why I’ve never written a hit song. Point, 1D.
Total Phoenix and M83 vibes on the verse (Look, Ma, no ’80s! Oh… wait.) But this chorus is my favorite. It lodges instantly and the ascending keyboard line really propels. The big instrumental hook is driven by a Guitar Center tone but, for some reason, it still totally works for me. Good closer and nice Moog wind-down at the end. Drama, y’all.
I dunno, guys, I think I might like One Direction. I mean, for a band that pretty much has to pander to the lowest common denominator, it feels like they took a few risks here and there which totally paid off. I can’t say that I can tell their voices apart, and I’m fairly certain the lyrics weren’t written with a 42-year-old dad in mind, but there were hooks everywhere and in my book, melody wins. Soon enough, I’m sure one of these guys (Styles, I’m looking at you) will want More — they always do — and our time with 1D will come to an end. Until then, fire up the Chevy Malibu wagon, raise your lighters, don your parachute pants and let’s take a trip back in time. I have Cheetos in my braces.