The Week In Pop

Niall Horan’s Solo Album Makes One Direction Seem Dangerous By Comparison

At this point One Direction have been broken up long enough that we’re beginning to see what each member of the once-dominant boy band is bringing to the table in his solo career. Zayn Malik fashioned himself as a mini-Weeknd of sorts, exploring 50 shades of sexy pop-R&B and coming away with some decent singles that established his foothold on the pop B-list. Harry Styles emerged as the young classic rocker of the bunch, liberally cribbing from Bowie, Buckley, and Ryan Adams in service of a pretty good debut LP. Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne are charting a more traditional post-Timberlake boy-bander trajectory but have not released any songs memorable enough to help me remember which 1D underling is which. And then there’s Niall Horan, the English outfit’s lone Irishman, whose debut album Flicker drops this Friday.

Horan is the 1D alumnus hewing closest to the sound of his former group — or at least one version of it. One Direction actually branched out in quite a few directions over the years, including hard-charging power-pop, sleek ’80s FM-dial throwbacks, and breezy ’70s-style California car jams indebted to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. But a significant segment of their catalog erred on the (even) softer side, toward folk-pop and the sort of emotive whitebread guitar music we as a culture have come to associate with Grey’s Anatomy. That gentler side of the 1D aesthetic lives on in Horan’s solo career, albeit with the occasional cuss word to remind you he’s all grown up now.

Flicker establishes Horan as a part of the same lineage as Ed Sheeran, the mainstream’s reigning singer-songwriter. Horan never ventures into the hip-hop or dance-pop sounds that sometimes lend Sheeran’s music a bit of a jolt but mostly make him sound ridiculous. Flicker is far too straitlaced for that sort of experimentation. It exists right there in the soft-rock sweet spot alongside Sheeran hits like “Thinking Out Loud” and “The A Team” and “Photograph” as well as a lengthy coffeeshop playlist of tracks from the John Mayer/Howie Day/Shawn Mendes school.

First came “This Town,” an acoustic ballad in search of a primetime soap opera montage. When Horan shared the track as his solo career’s opening blast last fall, it became immediately clear he was forgoing the cool-kid posturing favored by Malik and Styles and was shooting straight for your mushy, adult-contemporary heart. Even if you actively retch at the sound of such Hallmark fluff — and make no mistake, “This Town” is basically a heartfelt greeting card in song form — its weapons-grade sentimentality announced the then-23-year-old as a force to be reckoned with in his field. He was (warmly and meekly) not fucking around.

When Horan got to his album-rollout phase he unveiled “Slow Hands,” which, although not the Interpol cover of our collective demented imagination, firmed up the previous single’s treacly qualities with some bluesy kick befitting the actual Slowhand. It’s still in that One Tree Hill soundtrack mold, but its smoky soulfulness and casually swaggering minimalism rendered it a significant upgrade in quality. One smart critic even compared it to Spoon — a reasonable parallel even if Jim Eno would have made it snap twice as hard and Britt Daniel would have sung it with a hearty gruffness beyond Horan’s grasp.

The last piece of the pre-release puzzle, “Too Much To Ask,” returned to Horan’s preferred pensive balladeer mode. It’s built around piano in a manner resembling the Fray, a venue for breathy milquetoast emoting against a steady, unremarkable undercurrent. In conjunction with the other two singles “Too Much To Ask” essentially completes Horan’s portfolio, establishing him as the respectable young gentleman you stan for because Sheeran strikes you as just a smidge too edgy.

It’s an impression the rest of Flicker reinforces. This is a collection of songs so drowsy and unthreatening you may begin to wonder if you’re on hold with your credit card company. The pace slightly quickens and the backbeat marginally firms up for “On The Loose” and “Since We’re Alone” because you gotta open your concert somehow. Rising country star Maren Morris shows up for some cross-promotion on a duet called “Seeing Blind” (which unfortunately offers little of her usual spunk) because the difference between Horan and many of Nashville’s solemn white boys in T-shirts is negligible. “Flicker” at least toys with the idea of becoming melodically surprising because not every exercise in anonymous songcraft can flatline. Yet the overall impression is the lack of any impression at all.

Easy-listening tunes devoid of personality and color have always been a profitable hustle, and I do not begrudge Horan his right to make a living, but it’s hard not to scoff at an album so pleasantly insubstantial that it makes the One Direction discography sound like punk rock. Flicker is such an innocuous, ephemeral collection of music that if not for One Direction’s cultural importance there’d be no reason to spare it any attention, much less any bile. I didn’t even realize I disdained it until I was faced with the prospect of evaluating it. Such an absence of distinguishing characteristics makes me wonder what Niall must’ve been thinking while Zayn fumed about the group’s creative restrictions and Harry daydreamed of rock stardom and the other two struggled to remember whether they were Louis or Liam. None of these guys have come out of the gate with a solo masterpiece, but only Horan is out here redefining 1D to mean one-dimensional.

CHART WATCH

Who the hell is NF? If you don’t know, now you know: He’s Nathan Feuerstein, a white rapper from Michigan who has the #1 album in America. NF’s Perception debuts atop the Billboard 200 with 55,000 equivalent units and 38,000 in pure sales — an impressive achievement even if it’s the smallest tally for a #1 album this year. Billboard points out that NF is the second artist this year to score a #1 album without ever logging a song on the Hot 100 singles chart; the first was Brand New.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits holds at #2 for a second straight week with 47,000 units and 29,000 in sales as listeners continue to mourn Petty. Up next is rapper Lil Pump with a #3 debut for his self-titled album; album sales only account for 6,000 of his 46,000 units. Then comes Post Malone, whose 2016 debut Stoney reaches an all-time high of #4 with 45,000 units. Another late 2016 title, country star Kane Brown’s self-titled debut, shoots back up to #5 with 43,000 units after Brown reissued it with bonus tracks. After A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie at #6 and Lil Uzi Vert at #7 comes Marilyn Manson, whose Heaven Upside Down enters at #8 with 35,000 units and 32,000 sales. Imagine Dragons at #9 and Ed Sheeran at #10 round out the chart’s upper frame.

Over on the Hot 100, the three-week reign of “Bodak Yellow” is over. Cardi B’s hip-hop anthem has been replaced at #1 by another rap song, Post Malone and 21 Savage’s sing-songy “Rockstar.” It’s the first career #1 for both artists and, as Billboard reports, the fifth rap song to hit #1 this year, tying a record set in 2003, 2004, and 2006. Besides “Bodak” and “Rockstar,” this year’s chart-topping rap hits include DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” (featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne), Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” and Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee.”

“Bodak” is back at #2, followed by Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255″ at #3 and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” at #4. Then comes Portugal. The Man’s crossover smash “Feel It Still” at a new #5 peak. That bumps J Balvin, Willy William, and Beyoncé’s “Mi Gente” down to #6. Sam Smith, meanwhile, is back up to #7 with “Too Good At Goodbyes,” in part due to performing the track on SNL. The rest of the top 10 comprises Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” at #8, Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” at #9, and French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” at #10.

POP FIVE

Will Smith – “Get Lit”
Everything you’d expect 49-year-old Will Smith’s attempt at EDM to be, from the years-too-late slang in the title on down.

Maroon 5 – “Whiskey” (Feat. A$AP Rocky)
Add Pretty Flacko to the list of respectable rap and R&B stars to recently collaborate with Maroon 5. Like the rest of those, it’s honestly not half bad.

Pink – “Revenge” (Feat. Eminem)
Not the sound I was expecting from a Pink/Eminem collab, be it in 2001 or 2017, but they could have done worse than this cartoonish late-’90s pop bop.

Walk The Moon – “Headphones”
I’m not in love with this song, but it’s interesting to hear the band behind a huge ’80s pop throwback hit like “Shut Up And Dance” release an aggressive dance-punk track that turns into a Muse song at the end. Keeping us on our feet, Walk The Moon! “You could learn a lot from a good pair of headphones” is a cool hook, too.

Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line – “Meant To Be”
So Florida Georgia Line are just gonna keep on hopping on middling pop singles until they score another crossover hit, huh?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift shot a new music video in London. [TMZ]
  • Miley Cyrus will return to SNL 11/4 with host Larry David. [Twitter]
  • Demi Lovato details the extent of her drug and alcohol addictions in a new documentary. [Vulture]
  • Cher has joined the cast of Mamma Mia! sequel, Here We Go Again. It’ll be her first film role in 7 years. [Independent]
  • Life & Style claims Fifth Harmony are on the brink of splitting up. [Life & Style]
  • Halsey and Metro Boomin ranted on Twitter against Atlantic Records/Warner Music Group imprint Artist Partners Group: “Fuck these people trying to bleed artists dry.” [Billboard]
  • Last night Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Stapleton, and Keith Urban opened the CMT Artists Of The Year Awards with a somber tribute to the victims of the mass shooting at Route 91 Harvest Festival. [Review Journal]
  • Charlie Puth released a goofy music video for “How Long.” [YouTube]
  • Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick will star in NBC’s Trolls Holiday special. [Twitter]
  • Logic recruited Juanes for a Spanish language remix of “1-800-273-8255.” [Spotify]
  • DNCE’s Joe Jonas got engaged to British actress Sophie Turner. [Instagram]
  • Injury-prone Ed Sheeran hurt his arm in a bike accident and may have to postpone some tour dates. [Instagram]
  • Jason Derulo’s home was robbed of $680k in cash and jewelry and cops suspect an inside job. [TMZ]
  • Clean Bandit’s new single with Julia Michaels is out next week. [Twitter]
  • Chris Brown is releasing a 45-track album this month. [Revolt]
  • Here’s Halsey covering Charlie Puth’s “Attention.” [YouTube]
  • Nicki Minaj channelled Sade on the cover of T Magazine. [Instagram]
  • The iHeartRadio ALTer EGO concert at the Forum in LA in January will “celebrate everything alternative rock” with Mumford & Sons, Cage The Elephant, Walk The Moon, and others. [Variety]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME