Seeing black and white photos of Liam Payne in his pants plastered across billboards across London (for the new Hugo Boss underwear campaign) while listening to LP1, I began to think of the former One Direction star as a “Torso Voice”: smooth, muscular and generically sexy, but pretty headless.
It seems this may be how he also sees himself. In a series of frank interviews to promote his first solo album, Payne has admitted he struggled to find his identity after 1D went on indefinite hiatus in 2016. His job in the band was to play the neutral foil to the more distinctive styles and more demanding egos of his four bandmates, which saw him branded The Boring One.
As the band imploded he started drinking – perhaps in search of an identity. He told Sky One’s Ant Middleton that the loneliness of fame had “almost killed him”. After 2016 he got together with Cheryl Cole, became a dad, split up with her (amicably) and spent a year sober: still in search of an identity. He told GQ his therapist asked him what he actually liked to do. His response: “I don’t know!”
He still want to be a pop star but lacked… well… direction. Over the past three years, Payne has bounced between songwriters and producers, drizzling out top 10 hits (which all appear on the album) but admitting the process had all the intimacy of blind dating.
So in 2017 he hung out with Ed Sheeran and wrote debut, trap-inflected single “Strip that Down” (ft Quavo) on which he sang: 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 wanna have fun and (get rowdy).” It wasn’t all that rowdy.
He followed this with the “Drake-influenced” “Get Low” (with German-Russian DJ, Zedd) and the poppier “Bedroom Floor” (with Charlie Puth). In 2018, he added little more than vocal bulk to Rita Ora duet “For You” (from the Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack); had more fun on the post-“Despacito” Latin bandwagon on “Familiar” (with Columbia’s J Balvin); and returned to cute dance pop on “Polaroid” (with Jonas Blue and Lennon Stella).
I’ve hummed along to at least three of those mid-level hits on the radio without identifying Payne as the vocalist. He’s got a nice set of pipes. He gets the songs across. But without imposing any personality on them he’s just, well, a singing six-pack.
He remains a hardworking torso throughout LP1. There’s a little rote anguish on songs such as “Heart Meet Break”, “Weekend” and “Live Forever”; a little emoting-by-numbers in search of a melody on the seasonal ballad “All I Want (For Christmas)” (not a Mariah Carey cover); and a little raunch on “Both Ways”, about a lover who “switches lanes like a Bugatti Sport”. It sounds like Payne’s definitely in the market for a luxury car campaign next, as he also gives shout outs to Ferrari and Lamborghini.
It’s all fine: shiny and efficient pop, smelling of body oil and new car upholstery. But Payne treats each track like a rental car. He gives each song a spin and hands the keys back like a good lad without leaving a trace. Maybe that’s a very sane decision for a man who was nearly broken by fame. Maybe he is very wise to keep himself back. He has millions of fans who will buy this anyway. But they should be aware he’s gone from One Direction to One Dimensional.