Capitol Records · October 20, 2017
Niall Horan makes good Adult Contemporary when he could be making great Modern Rock. But for what it is, his new LP is a strong debut that I surprisingly recommend.
[three_fourth]This may come as a shock, but I was not very torn up when One Direction broke up. After years of being the biggest stars on Planet Earth, it felt natural and expected for the no-longer babyfaced musicians to branch out and try different things. ZAYN left to become a trap-soul crooner, Harry Styles went on to make dad-rock, and Liam Payne is trying to be Justin Timberlake. Each of them has produced at least one song that I genuinely (guiltily) like; the vocally impressive ‘Pillowtalk’ for ZAYN, the 70’s montage-ready ‘Kiwi’ for Harry, and the sleazy-yet-enjoyable ‘Strip That Down’ for Liam. The only member that did not embark on a solo career is Louis Tomlinson, who is taking time away from the spotlight to be with his newborn child.
This leaves us with the last member of the group, Niall Horan. After a bumbling single that sounded like Ed Sheeran Lite©, Niall’s album was one I did not have high hopes for. After listening through his first LP, Flicker, I must confess that I did not give Niall nearly enough credit. His talents as 1D’s head writer and musician have really shown through on this record and I think it’s a sign of great things to come.
As the album started I was immediately thrown off guard by a delay-heavy clean guitar riff accompanied by a funky indie pop beat. I actually pressed pause and made sure I didn’t turn on The Colourist or something by mistake. I was convinced that this fun and ambient indie-rock song could not have come from a member of One Direction. ‘On the Loose’ features a great bassline, flairs of country, a touch of soul, and some impressively well blended vocal production courtesy of Julian Bunetta, whom Niall worked with extensively while still a member of 1D. It isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it certainly set the tone of pleasant surprise for the remainder of the album. The indie-pop track that really blew me away on this album was ‘You & Me,’ which has a killer indie-blues lead guitar, a great hook, lovably gorgeous lyrics, and stellar production. It’s easily Horan’s best sounding vocal performance. I must have listened to that song 10 times the day Flicker dropped, and I really wish there was more of this sound on the record.
The only other song that dabbles in the indie sound is the highest charting single from the album, ‘Slow Hands.’ The instrumental hook is solid and the production is good, but overall it feels very confused. Is it a slow-dance ballad? Is it a sex song? Is it a blues song? It tries to put its foot in too many pools and just doesn’t come out as one strong, cohesive piece of music. As a single, it does the job, as it rode the way to #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts. This makes One Direction the first group with 3 members to have individual #1 singles with the aforementioned ‘Strip That Down’ and ‘Pillowtalk’ also notching #1 spots in the Top 40. They beat Destiny’s Child’s previous record of two, not that it really matters, seeing as Beyoncé alone still has twice as many as a solo artist than the whole band’s solo endeavors combined.
The vast majority of the remaining tracks on this record float in a weird balance between Top 40 and Alt-Country. This makes a lot more sense of Niall’s duet partner on ‘Seeing Blind,’ Grammy winning Country Superstar Maren Morris, who will also be sharing the stage with Horan on his upcoming tour. The country songs are somewhat of a hit or near-miss, but I didn’t find any of them unenjoyable. After the second verse of a few of them I just skipped ahead and said “Alright I got the jist.” I went back on a few of these tracks and really enjoyed them, with one slight reservation.
The vocal hooks on many of these tracks are acceptable, and certainly fill their role as earworms, but none of them really spark a vested interest in me. ‘Fire Away’ and ‘Flicker’ have gorgeous instrumentals and build up to the hook with great choruses, but they seem to just kind of fall flat right as we reach the lyrical hook. This doesn’t mean the country songs are without memorable moments, as tracks like ‘On My Own’ and ‘Since We’re Alone’ provide solid choruses with phenomenal guitar riffs as intros and hooks. I hope Horan and his team of writers build on these strengths going forward.
The only major gripe I have with this album, which I mentioned at the beginning, is when Horan tries to be Ed Sheeran. The first single ‘This Town’ is a huge culprit of this, but not as much as ‘Paper Houses’ which is literally just a quilt of different Ed Sheeran lyrics put over a heartland country backing track penned by Snow Patrol hit-machine Iain Archer. Just the opening line “In this house of broken hearts, We make our love out of stacks of cards” sounds like “Thinking Out Loud but Hearts Don’t Break Around Here in this Lego House that’s Perfect.” Thankfully, these Divisive (I hate myself) Sheeran rip offs are kept to those two tracks, leaving the rest of the album as genuinely enjoyable music.
This album’s genre jumping makes it difficult to pin down into a solid category, so I’m just going to call it a solid Adult Contemporary album. However, I think Niall was smart to feel around a bit on his first LP. His former bandmate Harry Styles went head first into 70’s Rock, and after decent but not impressive critical reception, I would find it very difficult for him to pivot in another direction for his sophomore effort. If Niall had done a hard lean into indie, singer-songwriter, or country, he would have likely encountered the same problem after similar reviews. Niall has shown himself to be a much more dynamic writer and artist on this record, and I could optimistically see him bringing his flair of country based indie-pop into the Top 40 in upcoming projects. I think this album is fun and well written, and I had a blast listening to it. Now someone go tell 13-year-old me that hell has frozen over.
Listen to Flicker here: