There’s no denying that over the past six years, One Direction has grown in every meaning of the word. From clumsy teenagers to scruffy young men, from slightly scared performers to stage animals and from just another talent show contestant to, well, the world’s biggest boyband.
As much as we’d like to discuss all these different types of growth – we could write a novel on their gradual progress from chinos to skinny jeans alone – in this article, we’ll try to keep the focus on just one thing: One Direction’s songwriting skills.
As with any artist that’s the product of a talent show, One Direction hasn’t always had much to say about the direction (sorry not sorry) their career was headed in. The 1D lads themselves have often spoken about how the first few years of their career seem like a big blur and one glance at their schedule makes it clear that they weren’t exaggerating.
As soon as we left [the X Factor] and got out there on our own, the work-rate just went mad, totally crazy. We were being shepherded around all over the place and everyone wanted a bit of us.
Niall Horan in One Direction: Who We Are
Combine the immense pressure that comes with recording a debut album with long days of promo and jetting back and forth between recording studios in LA and Sweden and you’ll understand that during the Up All Night era, One Direction didn’t have a whole lot of time to write their own lyrics. Lucky for them, they were surrounded by a rather successful team of songwriters to take care of things for them.
That’s not to say that 1D didn’t have any hand in their first album – all lads are credited as co-writers on at least three songs – but let’s face it, they wouldn’t become the lyrical geniuses they are today until much later in their career.
While the One Direction members gradually got more involved with the songwriting for their sophomore album Take Me Home, it wasn’t until their third album Midnight Memories that their songwriting talents really started to flourish.
Two band members that stepped up to the plate in particular were Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne, with both lads being credited for the songwriting of more than ten songs on the album. They both have described this as the time when they finally got confident with their songwriting, and in Louis’ case, with his vocal abilities. That newfound confidence is crystal clear on Midnight Memories, One Direction first and firm step away from bubblegum pop and into an interesting combination of pop, rock and folk.
Lyrics-wise, Midnight Memories marks the transition of One Direction’s members from boy to man more clearly than any other One Direction album. Much like Up All Night and Take Me Home, it’s got its fair share of love songs, but some changes are noticeable. ‘Don’t Forget Where You Belong’ explores life on the road, ‘Through The Dark’ made someone write this incredible essay on depression and Liam Payne’s talent hit a new high when he came up with the concept of ‘Better Than Words’, a song of which the verses consist solely of song titles.
And while there’s still an impressive number of love songs on Midnight Memories, there does seem to be a change in the way that love is experienced. The love songs on Up All Night and Take Me Home ooze puppy love, the kind of infatuation that you rarely experience once you’ve reached your twenties, with mostly generic sugary sweet lyrics that could have been sung by any teenage pop star. On Midnight Memories however, those five lanky lads proved that they actually do seem to know what love is. Songs like ‘Strong’ and ‘Happily’, co-written by Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles respectively, talk about the struggles that come with an adult relationship and ‘Something Great’ is as brilliant lyrically as it is vocally, with Tomlinson’s raspy lines saved until the very final part of the song, inventively designed to have him ‘answer’ the rest of the song.
After that came FOUR, an album that could’ve done with a parental advisory label for explicit content. One Direction had grown up – and if you don’t believe us, just look up the lyrics for ‘No Control’ or ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Once again, the 1D lads seem to show quite some experience with serious relationships, with songs like ‘Fool’s Gold’ (“And, yeah, I let you use me from the day that we first met / But I’m not done yet / Falling for your fool’s gold”) and the Fleetwood Mac-like track ‘Fireproof’ (“It’s been so long, it’s been so long, we must be fireproof / ’cause nobody saves me, baby, the way you do”).
Made in the AM, One Direction’s fifth and most recent album, is the culmination of their songwriting so far. On Made in the AM, everything works, from the Bittersweet Symphony-like opener ‘Hey Angel’ to the final ‘A.M.’, an ode to the lasting friendship between the four remaining members of the band after the departure of Zayn Malik in March 2015. Lyric-wise, the One Direction lads prove they’re stronger than ever. ‘Olivia’ and ‘Wolves’ are equally brilliant, with the ‘Woohoos’ in the background of the latter reminding you of, well, wolves, and ‘Olivia’ including a pre-chorus that’s a true tongue twister. And if you ask us, ‘What A Feeling’ just might be the best song of this decade.
Needless to say, we sincerely hope the One Direction lads don’t stop exploring their talents anytime soon. If this is what they’re capable of at their age, the thought of the songs they could be writing in five, ten, twenty years time is a bit frightening – but in the best way. Rumours about solo deals and side projects are dropping left, right and centre, but until we know anything for certain we’ll just keep dreaming about a surprise release of a sixth album, whilst listening to 1D’s discography on repeat.