A decade — yes, a decade — ago, a teenage boy band by the name of One Direction was formed. After auditioning as individual singers on the British musical competition The X Factor, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik were thrown together into a group by TV personality Simon Cowell in 2010. And thus, One Direction was born.
While the group only placed third on The X Factor, their time on the reality show was just the beginning of their global takeover. Over a span of five years, the group released five albums, did four world tours, broke numerous Billboard 100 music records (including ones previously only held by the Beatles), recorded a documentary, and even released a perfume.
At the same time, the five members also became the basis of adolescent crushes and fervor for many years to come. Thanks to their individual quirks and calculated branding ploys, each boy quickly became an archetype for a different high school crush: Niall was the adorable friend, Harry the artistic boy next door. Zayn was quietly mysterious, while Liam was extroverted and jockish. And Louis? Hmm, well — Louis was also there.
For those five years, the One Direction boys seemed like they were untouchable. That is, until Zayn left the group in 2015 to embark on a solo career, and, a year later, the remaining band members announced an “indefinite hiatus.”
Four years after One Direction announced its hiatus, each of the One Direction-ers have begun their own solo careers. It’s the first time any of them have recorded without each other, and the first time they’ve performed solo in front of an audience since being on The X Factor as teens. Their solo albums, good or bad, reveal how each individual wants to reintroduce themselves to the public, and how they’re attempting the complicated leap from adolescent pop star to independent adult artist.
Now that Louis Tomlinson has dropped his first solo album, every former One Direction member has released at least one solo project. (Harry and Zayn have each released two.) And there are some very clear winners and losers among them. Here’s how they stack up against each other and what each one tells us about who these boys are now that they’ve spent some time apart.
Winner: Fine Line by Harry Styles
Watching Harry emerge triumphantly, hair and culottes billowing, with the title of Most Popular and Critically Acclaimed Ex-One Direction Member is not unlike watching a long-awaited prophecy finally fall into place. Ever since One Direction first stepped into the international limelight, interviews and press circuits saw that Harry was different from his fellow bandmates. He was offbeat but cool, disheveled but sexy.
And in 2017, when he released his debut album named — what else? — Harry Styles, Harry established himself as worthy of all the hype from his years in the band. A brooding rock record filled with anecdotes about all the sex he has and heartbreak he’s felt, Harry Styles reintroduced Harry to the world as an indie songwriter, David Bowie fanboy, and charismatic lover. And with his next, more experimental 2019 album, Harry takes all these elements of his identity a step further, securing his spot in the popular music landscape as a modern rock star.
Harry released Fine Line at the end of last year, interrupting winter’s dreariness with bright, dancey songs about all-consuming yearning. The lyrics of “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar” conjure images of summer fruits and summer loves, and both songs set the perfect soundtrack for encountering a crush at a party, or at least fending off seasonal depression. And on “Cherry,” his transportive and melancholy ode to an ex, listeners get a glimpse at genuine heartache from Harry. Despite having built a career out of belting love songs, Harry has never before sounded this vulnerable in his music before. “Cherry” shines a light on the vulnerabilities of a seemingly invulnerable star and brings a touching depth to Harry’s music that was previously absent. Fine Line is the most adventurous and enjoyable of the One Direction members’ solo efforts, and it’s sure to convert even the most crotchety boy band skeptics into believers.
Winner: Flicker by Niall Horan
As a member of One Direction, Niall was beloved — but not for being the band’s breakout star or its scene-stealing performer or even its biggest personality. Niall’s greatest charm, and the primary allure of his 2017 album Flicker, is instead seeming like an ordinary, likable guy. The human embodiment of a chill night in, Niall projects affable, regular-guy energy, but in a more palatable way than, say, Ed Sheeran. He’s a man who, after being part of the most popular boy band this side of the millennia, can still convincingly seem like he’s bemused by his fame and wealth. Niall likes Nando’s, and he likes to golf on the weekends. It’s easy to imagine him as one of those people with the uncanny ability to put horses at ease simply by murmuring the dulcet opening bars of his hit single “This Town” and running his guitar-worn hands over their hides.
Niall brings this same aura of safety and coziness to Flicker, where he strums his acoustic guitar and sings earnestly about the mundane highs and lows of falling in love. His songs are emotionally and musically safe — the most upbeat tracks, “On the Loose” and “Slow Hands,” still retain a mellow, unhurried cadence, and sad songs like “Paper Houses” veer away from raw grief or anguish, opting instead for lyrics that just barely skim the surface of sorrow.
Is it always good when an artist’s best quality is being inoffensive and never taking risks? No, but perhaps in the swirling political and social chaos of 2020, it’s what we need. Niall is a calming lighthouse in the stormy sea of life, and we would be fools to let him out of our sight.
Loser: Icarus Falls by Zayn Malik
Writer Allison P. Davis once described Zayn as someone who “sings about sex like it’s this thing he just heard about on a Jodeci song.” It’s this image of Zayn that echoes in my mind whenever I think about his couple’s photoshoot with model Gigi Hadid, or the boyish pirate-themed pub in his backyard, or his many, many selfies featuring a tortured grimace and 5 o’clock shadow. Despite his reputation for being the quiet, mysterious band member, in his post-One Direction career, Zayn has revealed both his passion for sensual R&B, as well as a powerful lack of convincing sexual energy.
Davis’s one-sentence character study is also a devastatingly apt summary of Zayn’s second album, which came out in 2018. At nearly an hour and a half, Icarus Falls is a boring, corny exploration of what happens when a too-handsome man ensconces himself in cologne and longing. Chock full of weak lyrics (e.g. “That’s how I feel the soul inside her body”) and dull, forgettable beats, the album has neither the playfulness nor sufficient melancholy to breathe life into Zayn’s sensual aspirations, and the end result is unrewarding.
The disappointment of Icarus Falls is worsened by the fact that Zayn’s debut album, Mind of Mine, was so much better. Mind of Mine’s intriguing blasé attitude was an exciting change of pace from Zayn’s demeanor in One Direction, when he was obligated to sing very un-blasé songs like “What Makes You Beautiful.” Although the 2016 record also frequently stumbled when it intended to seduce, it showed signs of artistic promise that make Icarus Falls seem like dull anticlimax, with a mere two exceptions. “Let Me” and “Entertainer” are soothing tracks in which Zayn vows to shower his lover in devotion and luxury items, and they’re the only songs that come close to the groovy fun of his last album. For listeners who are unable to let go of Zayn’s undeniable vocal chops and moody flair (me), these quality songs are exasperating reminders that Zayn is wasting his potential as well as everyone else’s time.
Loser: LP1 by Liam Payne
For many years, Liam seemed poised to stay in the “normal guy” lane with Niall, often playing the band’s cheerful jokester in music videos and interviews. Because of his jovial stage presence and photogenic, symmetrical face, many people — Liam included — thought he would follow the footsteps of another boy band pop mogul, Justin Timberlake. Recently, however, Liam’s public personality has begun to curdle slightly, in the form of controversial Instagram posts about his personal wealth, dating and impregnating the judge at his X Factor audition, and regrettable jewelry he calls the “Payne Chain.” Today, Liam seems less like a new Timberlake and more like a second-rate Bieber.
Liam’s debut album LP1, released in December 2019, follows a similarly cringy trajectory. Boosted by Chainsmoker-esque beats and sleazy lines about “[doing] your ass in the car,” Liam’s music is a bold statement separating himself from the sound of One Direction, but it’s not for the better. At one particularly low point, he leers at and fetishizes his partner’s bisexuality in the song “Both Ways.” But even on tracks without pointedly offensive lyrics, Liam’s bravado comes off as corny, and he fails to utilize his sonorous voice’s full strength. Each song on LP1 sounds like a mishmash assembly of smash hit ingredients, but the final product can’t quite stick the landing, and songs blur together in a haze of tropical synth and repetitive melody.
It’s not all bad, though. Tasteless songs aside, it’s hard not to listen to LP1 without admiring Liam’s unwavering audacity. Not everyone has the bulwark of confidence required to sing lyrics like, “I just wanna have fun and get rowdy / One Coke and Bacardi, sipping lightly,” or release a song called “Hips Don’t Lie” that’s neither a Shakira cover nor good. While this album is not the radio-ready bop collection that Liam was perhaps hoping it would be, LP1 is, above all else, unapologetic about what it is.
Loser: Walls by Louis Tomlinson
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Louis says, “[Niall’s] the most lovely guy in the world … Zayn has a fantastic voice … Harry comes across very cool. Liam’s all about getting the crowd going, doing a bit of dancing … And then there’s me.”
Louis’s self-deprecating remarks reflect the popular perception of him as the forgettable, “other” member of One Direction. Sadly, his same failure to assert himself as a unique public figure and musician is the downfall of his album Walls, which struggles to sound memorable despite being the solo album that most closely resembles One Direction’s former sound.
Louis is the last member of One Direction to release a solo album, largely because he put off recording music for an extended amount of time after the death of his mother and sister in 2016 and 2019, respectively. Given this context, it’s not surprising that Louis’s music is steeped in solemnity, whether he’s nostalgic for an old relationship on “Too Young,” or openly grieving the loss of his family on “Two of Us.”
Unfortunately, Walls feels like a confessional series of diary entries set to drums and tinny acoustic guitar, and while the frank intimacy is a refreshing contrast to, say, Liam, ultimately the album feels lackluster and sonically generic. Soft guitar and even softer vocals accompany lyrics about longing — for someone, a feeling, a moment in the past — making Walls feel like a pale imitation of One Direction’s booming rock-inspired pop rather than an entity of its own. In his first attempt to separate himself musically from the group, Louis once again blends into the background.
Not everyone is better off alone [insert pun about One Direction becoming Many Directions].
The transition from boy band member to adult man solo artist is not an easy one. The scramble to assert oneself as a legitimate, relevant musician can be full of pressure, and not everyone walks away with equal amounts of fame and success. In the case of One Direction, the majority of these underwhelming solo efforts suggest that, as much as the members have striven to express their individuality, their biggest legacy will probably be being part of a group. (Unless we’re talking about Harry Styles, that is.)
Listen to Switched on Pop
The boy band One Direction has been on hiatus for nearly five years, yet only now have all of the members of the group released a solo album. But how do these efforts from Niall, Liam, Harry, Louis and Zayn stack up?