If you’re a collective One Direction optimist — in the maybe-it-really-is-a-hiatus sense — you could imagine that the current flurry of individual records (and the summer 2020 tours to follow) mean they’re all getting their solo stuff out of their systems to clear the palette for a reunion in the distant future. But from the look and sound of things this winter, every 1D is covering his ass and moving on, and fast.
After their 2016 announcement of an indefinite timeout, Harry Styles and Niall Horan dropped their solo album debuts in 2017 — with Horan following up with a single, “Put a Little Love On Me,” this week, and Styles’ sophomore album, “Fine Line,” coming out next Friday. No one seems overly curious what Zayn Malik is up to anymore. That leaves two members to finally catch up with. Louis Tomlinson’s debut solo album, “Walls,” arrives in January. So seeing Liam Payne — or “Payno,” seemingly the most loyal of all the 1D guys — now drop his first full-length in our hot hands this holiday season has a ring of finality for the four-piece.
On the breezy, trap-bouncing “Strip That Down,” Payne gives up several clipped nails in the coffin of his Brit boy band past when he intones, in his usual smooth and cocksure fashion, “You know, I used to be in 1D (now I’m out, free) / People want me for one thing (that’s not me) / I’m not changing the way that I used to be / I just want to have fun and get rowdy.”
Ugh, with those lyrics: There’s not a thing rowdy about that track — dowdy, maybe. But that cattiness is surely meant to be a lit match’s burn to his 1D comrades for whom Payne trilled softly and sweetly on cuts such as “Steal My Girl” and “History.” But Payne’s gassy-gossamer lilt and its soulful swizzle-stick’s stir seemed so much more at home with boy band harmonies or zig-zagging through the equally airy solos of Styles, Tomlinson and Horan.
Here, against the mid-tempo trap trot of “Strip That Down,” and its featured guest Quavo’s hacking cough of a rap, Payne comes across like a silly, soft-skinned deer in the headlights, or like Justin Timberlake during the grit-less moments of “Man of the Woods.”
Payne’s usual high baritone breathiness fares almost as (not so) well up against another rapper, the friendlier A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, on the halting hop of “Stack It Up.” The tune is unexcitingly listless (thanks, co-writer Ed Sheeran, who does melodic duty here, as well as on “Strip That Down”). And Payne’s delivery is more that of a tame rhetorician than the lover man of its lyrics. What ultimately saves the track is Payne having dropped his voice an octave and turned his vocal flow into something more chattily conversational. It’s literally a move from being a boy to growing up as a man in one song. Plus, when all else fails, talk softly, and admit: “If I ain’t have money, I’d be the worst for her.”
(Some of Payne’s admissions are regrettable: There’s an online backlash to his song “Both Ways,” about his desires for threesomes and preferences for women who swing, yes, both ways, with the hashtag #liampayneisoverparty spreading along with the admonition: “Bi women are not here for your pleasure.”)
Then there is the teaming that no one ever asked for, the meeting between Payne and the majestic J Balvin, on “Familiar.” The title is an oddly apt one, as everything about the song feels old fashioned and weirdly ’80s fogey-ish — not unlike Joe Biden’s “No Malarkey” tour bus. From its shoulder-hugging boyishness to its high-energy, faux-Latin production, this one track alone sets the LatinX music movement back four years. Fans of Modern Romance, however, will rejoice.
Though he doesn’t so sound verbally and grittily outmatched, Payne doesn’t fare much better with his friends in electronic pop either. He is more comfortable up against Zedd, electro’s Mr. Freeze, on the tropical hot dog house-pop of “Get Low” and the Cheat Codes’ hummer “Live Forever,” but neither height is so well-scaled or their compositions so intensely memorable. The very thought, though, of living forever with this tepid track makes for a wish of another kind: eternal sleep.
This isn’t to say that the cleverly titled “LP1” is without merit. His winning winsomeness and smoldering sensuality just happen to come through to a greater degree when he’s alone, without frippery or raps.
“Bedroom Floor,” co-written by blue-eyed soul’s secret weapon, Charlie Puth, is a slow stewing stunner, one where the singer gets to drop his octave in the name of love and croon luridly during chorus lines like “You said it was over / But your clothes say different on my bedroom floor.” Oddly enough, the same torrid heat can he felt on the tender-hearted, holiday-not-holiday balladry of “All I Want (For Christmas),” a truly sumptuous song whose pleading, lonely lyricism and sorrowful flow is only rivaled by its haunting, catchy melody. If you want a Christmas-themed song that’s not treacly or cloying, and features nary a jingle bell, this track is essential.
Those two tunes come at the end of the album, so why’d Payne wait so long for to show how simpler and low-down are better? That said, going backwards through “LP1” for a second and third listen, “Heart Meet Break,” from writer/producer Jake Torrey, and the Ryan Tedder-co-penned/Stargate co-produced “Say It All” aren’t bad, either. Each number finds Payne heading for another down-tempo, lower octave, sex-mumbling, lover-man rant that’s perfect for any after-hours rendezvous. In that regard, even Payne’s oxygenated duet with Rita Ora, “For You (Fifty Shades Freed),” holds romantic and melodic appeal, as does his caramelly, higher pitched “Hips Don’t Lie.”
Ultimately, a few things come from repeated listenings of “LP1″: First off, the writing and singing aren’t strong enough and come across as C-level Timberlake material. Two, without being surrounded by 1D, he shouldn’t sing high, flightily and airily, but rather stick to slow, low groovers. Three, Payno should find one or two styles that work best for him — and not put a host of other singers before him, male or female — and stick to them.
During “Home with You,” one of Payne’s better singles not included on this album, the singer claims: “Too many cooks in the kitchen / Too many fools here listening / Why don’t we find somewhere quiet, quiet.” Liam Payne should have taken his own advice.