The Week In Pop

The Forecast Is Improving For Niall Horan

Boy bands break up because the boys in them grow up. Other reasons surely factor in sometimes, like conflict and exhaustion and breakout stars going solo, but there’s a certain range between adolescence and middle age in which continuing in a boy band feels like arrested development. This is not a permanent condition. The likes of Backstreet Boys and New Kids On The Block have proven that reuniting in your thirties or forties can be a lucrative proposition. And as always, there are exceptions: Boyz II Men built maturation into their name, and Jonas Brothers recently parlayed their family reunion into a blueprint for twenty-something boy band success. Even the JoBros, though, probably benefitted image-wise from spending some years apart while they aged into adulthood. Historically, when you’re too old to believably be cast as a high school student but too young to believably be cast as a dad, remaining in a boy band is an awkward proposition.

I thought One Direction might be the group to pull it off. When the UK quintet released 2014’s Four, their best album, they seemed to have cultivated a style — a mixture of shout-along stadium anthems, folksy soft-rock, and snappy adult contemporary — that leant itself to traversing that boy band uncanny valley. Instead, Zayn Malik acrimoniously departed, the group released one more lesser album in 2015, and the members embarked on their solo careers.

They haven’t really stopped making One Direction records, though. Other than the hip-hop-adjacent Liam Payne, all of them are still working within their old group’s easy listening comfort zone. Although they’ve each pursued their own aesthetic preferences, from Zayn’s R&B to Louis Tomlinson’s Britpop to Harry Styles’ rootsy classic rock, the end result was a pile of MOR tracks that could have just as easily constituted 1D’s grownup phase. The styles have been different enough that I understand why they felt the need to chart their own paths rather than engage in a creative tug of war. Yet their solo careers suggest they wanted to escape One Direction’s structure, not its substance.

There’s getting older, and then there’s maturing. On his 2017 solo debut Flicker, 1D’s lone Irish member Niall Horan wove in some bluesy guitar work that ostensibly signified a step beyond teeny-bopping, but the album was so bland and unadventurous that it made One Direction seem dangerous by comparison. Horan’s charisma was significant, highlights like “Slow Hand” indicated real potential, and a duet with Maren Morris implied the imprimatur of one of Nashville’s brightest stars, but the album was mostly waiting-room treacle. That Horan’s career took off anyway was an indictment of the listening public.

Heartbreak Weather, Horan’s new album out at the end of the week, is much better. If he’s still making songs for boilerplate network dramas and young-professional mixers, this time they pop. If he’s still the musical equivalent of a suburban chain restaurant, the menu has been overhauled with a pleasing variety of flavors. The album’s writing, production, and performance all represent an upgrade from Flicker. Horan has developed a swagger that rescues the lesser tracks from grocery-aisle oblivion and elevates the highlights alongside the best of his old mates’ post-1D offerings. He has not just lived, he has learned.

Horan is a huge Eagles fan. In a recent Irish radio interview, he spoke of going to see an Eagles concert with Styles in London recently, and of a burgeoning friendship with Don Henley that included getting the notorious crank’s creative input on his new songs. This makes perfect sense. By the end of their run, 1D’s music hewed closer to the peaceful easy feeling of ’70s California rock than the meticulous Scandinavian pop confections the Y2K-era boy bands trafficked in, and much of Heartbreak Weather echoes the MOR pop that allowed Henley to be nearly as dominant in the ’80s as the Eagles were in the ’70s.

The album begins with its title track, boasting gargantuan synth swells and a hook built for shouting from the rooftops. It would have been huge on the blogs back when every indie artist was releasing their own semi-ironic ’80s pop pastiche. “Small Talk” tightens up the groove and trades the spiky guitars for gnarly blues licks. Playful lead guitar continues to be a key ingredient “No Judgement,” a tune about the kind of love that frees you up to let your hair down. “Bend The Rules” slows the VH1-core down to ballad speed and ends up with a bleary mirage that could pass for country music in the Sam Hunt era.

The vibe on these is not so different from the sophisticated adult contemporary sound Styles attempted on his recent Fine Line, except unlike Styles, Horan never pretends he’s making high art. That’s admittedly not the most ringing endorsement, but if you find the twee antics of Styles’ “Adore You” video annoying rather than adorable, perhaps you’d prefer the short-form rom-com of Horan’s “Nice To Meet Ya” video? The song itself represents Heartbreak Weather’s most intriguing twist, a throwback to the Jesus Jones and EMF era that my colleague Tom Breihan compared to Alex Turner fronting Soup Dragons. Amidst an extremely ’90s dance-rock beat, house pianos, and a swirl of strings and samples, Horan plumbs the depths of his rich singing voice and comes up with some genuine swagger.

The other cornerstone of Heartbreak Weather is the coffeeshop folk-rock that traces back through Flicker to the 1D era. Often these tracks resemble Ed Sheeran, the reigning king of this sound. In particular, “Black And White” and “Everywhere” successfully recapture the arms-open-skyward rush of Sheeran’s “Castle On The Hill.” Earnest arena anthems like these work well for both Sheeran and Horan because they play to both artists’ sentimental inclinations while retaining some kick. The alternative is gloopy fare like “Dear Patience,” which steers a bit too close to David Gray’s “Babylon,” and “Put A Little Love On Me,” which seems expressly designed to soundtrack a montage on a primetime network TV drama.

Even within this realm, though, Horan is capable of evolving. For most of its runtime, closing slow-build “Still” plays like just another excuse to emote in the upper register against increasingly lush production. Like so many power ballads before it, it piles on the layers before scaling back to its acoustic foundations and gliding on home. Yet just when I think Heartbreak Weather is ending with the most basic finale possible, Horan starts whistling, instantly charging the track’s waning moments with a deep and pleasing melancholy. This is another cliché, perhaps, but one that authentically moved me from an artist who has often left me cold. Such flourishes suggest this boy-band alumnus may someday grow up to be the man after all — or at the very least he won’t be desperate for a reunion tour.

CREDIT: Kenneth Cappello

CHART WATCH

Lil Baby has his first #1 album with My Turn, which tallied 197,000 equivalent album units to debut atop the Billboard 200. Per Billboard, 184,000 of those units derive from streaming, which amounts to 261.6 million on-demand track streams — the best streaming week for an album since Post Malone dropped Hollywood’s Bleeding last September. Close behind at #2 is Bad Bunny, whose YHLQMDLG enters with 179,000 units, 142,000 of them via streaming. It’s the urbano superstar’s highest-charting release yet and also the highest-chart position for any album performed entirely in Spanish, surpassing two prior albums that peaked at #4: Mana’s Amar es Combatir (2006) and Shakira’s Fijación Oral: Vol. 1 (2005). YHLQMDLG also boasts the biggest week for a Latin album since Billboard began including streaming data on the chart.

After BTS at #3 comes a #4 debut for James Taylor’s covers collection American Standard. The album racked up 82,000 units, 81,000 of them via sales, which makes it the top selling album of the week. It makes Taylor the first artist with a top-10 album in each of the last six decades: 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. (Wildly, the 1960s are no longer one of “the last six decades.”) Billboard says these are the only artists who could join Taylor in that club: Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Bette Midler, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Santana, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, and Van Halen. Some of them would have to be posthumous releases, obviously.

Even more album chart news: After Roddy Ricch at #5 and Justin Bieber at #6 comes a #7 debut for G Herbo’s PTSD with 59,000 units, only 4,000 of them from sales. Five Finger Death Punch’s F8 enters at #8 with 55,000 units, 45,000 of them from sales. Post Malone and YoungBoy Never Broke Again round out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” retains the #1 spot for a stunning ninth straight week, followed once again by Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” at #2. But we do have some interesting movement in the top 10. For one thing, Dua Lipa reaches a new career peak as “Don’t Start Now” climbs to #3. And after Post Malone’s “Circles” at #4 comes a #5 debut for Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love.” According to Billboard it’s her 16th top-10 hit. After Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne” at #6 comes a new #7 peak for the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey” is at #8, Maroon 5’s “Memories” is at #9, and Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions” bounces back to #10.

POP FIVE

Dixie Chicks – “Gaslighter”
This is so good. Now watch country radio ignore it.

Katy Perry – “Never Worn White”
This is so bad. Now watch it become her biggest hit in years.

Demi Lovato – “I Love Me”
I like this from Lovato. “I Love Me” does not immediately strike me as a masterpiece, but it’s catchy and relatable and maintains the narrative thread of her comeback, addressing heavy concerns without staying in the last single’s maudlin ballad zone.

Lauv – “Who” (Feat. BTS)
After breaking big at Top 40 radio with “I Like Me Better” a few years back, Lauv has been a mainstay of the not-quite-mainstream. It will be interesting to see whether anything from the new album he dropped Friday will take off to the same extent. A BTS collab would presumably be the most likely option, but the gleaming ballad “Who” is not doing much to set itself apart.

Bazzi – “Young & Alive”
I suspect the target market for Bazzi will respond positively to a chorus like, “Ridin’ my bike like I’m too young to drive/ Careless and free like it’s 2005.” But I’m not the target audience, so I’ll stick with Twenty One Pilots riding their Big Wheels.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Nicki Minaj’s husband was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender in California. [TMZ]
  • Lady Gaga announced a six-city stadium tour in Europe and North America. [Instagram]
  • Dua Lipa will perform on SNL with host John Krasinski 3/28. [Instagram]
  • Justin Bieber lost his exotic new cat last month. The pet was eventually discovered “starving, cold, scared, exhausted and stuck with porcupine quills” by a celebrity chef and, sadly, returned to the pop star. [NY Daily News]
  • In other Bieber news, he shared “All Around Me” and “Habitual” videos from the Changes visual album. [Billboard]
  • On Ellen Demi Lovato discussed how her controlling management team led to her relapse. [Vulture]
  • Lauv covered the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Taylor Swift donated $1M to Tennessee tornado relief. [Tennessean]
  • Swift also shared a behind-the-scenes for “The Man” video. [YouTube]
  • More Taylor Swift: She shared an International Women’s Day playlist of “songs I’m loving right now by female artists and bands,” including Grimes, Phoebe Bridgers, and beabadoobee. [Apple Music]
  • Niall Horan covered Swift’s “Lover” for Spotify. [Spotify]
  • BTS released a video for “Black Swan,” not to be confused with the previously released “art film” for the same song. [YouTube]
  • Hot Chelle Rae, whose 2011 hit “Tonight Tonight” has gone viral on TikTok in the past six months, joined the app. [TikTok]
  • Kacey Musgraves was joined by her husband Ruston Kelly on “Just For The Record” in Nashville. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME