TERRY GROSS, HOST:
One Direction was the first UK act to debut at number one at the US Billboard album chart with its first collection "Up All Night." Rock critic Ken Tucker says the British/Irish singing group is a pop quintet whose first album recalls the sounds of the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync and other older pop stars. Here's his review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ALL NIGHT")
ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) It feels like we've been living in fast forward and now the moment passing by. The party's ending but it's now or never. Nobody's going home tonight. Katy Perry's on play, she's on the play. DJ got the floor to shake, the floor to shake. People going all the way, yeah, all the way. I'm still wide awake. I want to stay up all night, jump around until we see the sun. I want to stay...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The callow croon over a pulsating beat, the massed harmonies in the chorus, the lyrics about partying that name-check Katy Perry and include a wistful wish for a nameless girl to kiss the singer - this is boy-band music at its newest and its most timeless.
The five young guys who comprise One Direction are single-minded. That is, their album is stuffed with potential hit singles, each one a song conceived as instantly catchy fluff that holds up to repeated listens, whether it's heard as a download, in performance on TV or over the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")
ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) You're insecure. Don't know what for. You turn heads when you walk through the door. Don't need makeup to cover up. Being the way that you are is enough. Everyone else in the room can see it. Everyone else but you. Baby, you light up my world like nobody else. The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed. The way you smile at the ground it ain't hard to tell you don't know. You don't know you're beautiful. If only you...
TUCKER: Questions of authenticity go out the window when grappling with this group. One Direction is an almost comical example of artificiality and commercial imperatives. Each of the five members – Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles and Louie Tomlinson – were individual contestants on the British TV talent show "The X Factor." Show judge Nicole Scherzinger almost whimsically suggested that the five band together to form a vocal group, and they did it.
One Direction was subsequently signed to the record company owned by X Factor producer-judge Simon Cowell, and sent into the recording studio with producers who'd crafted hits for Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, and The Backstreet Boys. And it all worked. These kids sound terrific. Listen to them rip through a song co-written by Kelly Clarkson, "Tell Me a Lie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME A LIE")
ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) Can't ever get it right. No matter how hard I try. And I try. Well, I put up a good fight but your words cut like knives. And I'm tired. As you break my heart again this time tell me I'm a screwed up mess, that I never listen, listen. Tell me you don't want my kiss, that you need your distance, distance. Tell me...
TUCKER: Here in America, there's a market for this kind of clean-cut music that's currently being exploited primarily by Justin Bieber. But Bieber is getting older and trying to make his Justin Timberlake hip-hop evolution. One Direction, meanwhile, is sliding right into that sweet spot in which songs about telling girls they're beautiful and that all you'd like to do is spend the night talking to them is a pathway to mass adoration.
About as adventurous as One Direction gets on this album is this song called "I Want," which sounds a bit like an undiscovered early work by Freddie Mercury's Queen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT")
ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) Give you this, give you that, blow a kiss, take it back. If I look inside your brain I would find lots of things – clothes, shoes, diamond rings, stuff that's driving me insane. You could be preoccupied, different date every night. You've just got to say the word. But you're not into them at all, you just want materials. I should know because I've heard. You say I want, I want, I want. But that's crazy. I want, I want, I want. But that's not me. I want, I want, I want to be loved by you. You've got everything you need...
TUCKER: One Direction is an overseas equivalent to the kind of boy groups that extend back at least as far as the 1960s, with The Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders, that is to say, groups that many adults can dismiss as trite or vacuous, but which pop-music fans of any age recognize as solid craftsmanship whose simple pleasures are nonetheless real, satisfying ones.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed One Direction's debut album "Up All Night." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.