I listen to Up All Night, and I’m transported right back to 2011. The band members have, over the years, diverged into different directions, but their early albums immortalize One Direction. Up All Night is a time capsule that turns the train-wreck of 2020-2021 into the hazy, soft and exciting time of the early 2010s where a group of five boys were beginning a journey that became part of millions of lives.
One of the appealing factors of One Direction’s music is that it feels like they’re singing directly to you. And they are. When you’re playing their songs and they say “I want, I want, I want/ To be loved by you”, it’s not even pretending to think that it is directed at you. There’s no abstract ‘her’, it’s you.
Every song plays like a love letter, confessing its desire for you in a variety of ways. In “Stole My Heart”, he’s telling you it didn’t take him more than one look to fall head over heels for you. In “Stand Up”, he’s telling you the lengths he’ll go to to win you over. And in “I Should Have Kissed You”, he’s replaying the time he let you go and wishes he could go back so that he could’ve kissed you instead.
Let’s look at some songs close-up, beginning with perhaps the most iconic song of this album, “What Makes You Beautiful.” I’d argue that the song doesn’t really send the best message because it boils down to the idea that your insecurity is what makes you attractive. But the song does make you feel beautiful, and it does make you feel seen because it tells you that your insecurities are lying to you. One Direction can attest to the fact that you are beautiful, and that’s never a bad thing to hear.
One of the recurring themes of the album is the idea of the other guy. He wants your heart, but you’ve given it to someone else, and he goes through all the emotions of dealing with it.“I Wish” is what jealousy feels like. It hurts so much to see you with someone else, and he’s just thinking of all the things you do with the guy who is not him: holding hands, slow dancing, and wishing goodnight. It’s breaking him, and this turns to desperation for delusion in “Tell Me a Lie.” Here, he just wants you to tell him something easier for him to live with than the fact that you wanted someone else: “Tell me you don’t want my kiss/ That you need your distance, distance/ Tell me anything but don’t you say he’s what you’re missing, baby’
In “Save You Tonight”, he’s confident. He knows he can give you more than the guy you’re with, and he wants you to have better. This is unlike the other songs, where he’s more focused on you, or on the other guy. Here, he is in the center. He’s the one who can love you better. But when we go to “More Than This”, we find one of the slower, softer songs of the album. It’s the more desperate, worn-down version of the same plea at the core of the previous songs. He’s no longer asking you to leave the other guy for him. Nor is he comparing his love to your lover’s. He’s telling you that you have all the love in his heart, and his heart can’t give you more. Depending on what you’re looking for from the song: a confident fight, a desperate plea, a jealous lover, or anguish so deep that he’s asking you to lie to him, One Direction has their ways of assuring you that you’re not only loved, but your love is something people will compete for.
This album also veers into heartbreak, into the pain of relationships that don’t work out. Sometimes he breaks your heart, and sometimes you break his. In “Gotta Be You”, he’s asking you for a second chance, and in “Taken”, you’re using him as a safety net. But in “Same Mistakes”, it’s the both of you. You’re both stuck in circles but don’t want to face it, and you are trying to wish the mistakes away.
In stark contrast to this, we have the titular song, “Up All Night”. This is exactly the kind of song that would play at the party the song talks about. It’s fun, it’s joyful, it’s full of youth and hope. Unlike most other songs in the album, love is only a small part of the song. The song is mainly about living, dancing, and enjoying passionately. I wonder why, then, this is the titular song of the album. My theory is that it’s because that’s what they want you to take away from it, from all the ups and downs of the love they sing about. They want you to remember the time you were up all night dancing, to remember the joy.