1D, 5 Albums: A Visual Retrospective

I don’t want to boast, but I’m pretty much a One Direction scholar. I spend long nights staring into the sky, considering the physics of Niall’s hair. I lace my fingers above my morning coffee and contemplate the meta-subtext of the song “Better Than Words.” I’ve even completed extensive field research at their scream-filled stadium tours.

As the band nears the release of their fifth studio album, “Made in the A.M.,” I’ve been reflecting on the role of the 1D historian. The five boys united on “The X-Factor” in 2010, and the next five years of pop superstardom offered a rich timeline of chart toppers and increasingly tight pants. An album cover is kind of like a time capsule, capturing the essence of a boyband. Long after embarrassing J14 photoshoots fade from memory, these covers stay tied to the music (and Spotify pages). What do the official photos reveal about the music, the trends, the lads’ very souls? Let’s travel in time to see what can be gleaned from five years and five album covers from One Direction.

Up All Night (2012)

ONE DIRECTION_UPALLNIGHT

This baby-faced debut is the equivalent of a human friendship bracelet. Look at this pretzel of tousled hair and open-mouthed smiles. Zayn’s hand cradles Harry’s stomach. Liam honks Louis’s boob. The early days of One Direction were filled with tender caresses (which spawned a lot of weird fan art). This idea of friendship and brotherhood formed the band’s early foundation. Five boys were tossed together in the reality TV machine, and they weren’t just compatible, they were obsessed with each other.

During the Up All Night phase, 1D mainly focused on showing the world how much fun they were having. They were going to have so much fun that in comparison, your life would seem like an endless grey cloud. At the same time, though, they were the sort of wholesome boys who would get you home by curfew. You can tell this because they are all wearing khakis.

Take Me Home (2012)

ONE DIRECTION TAKE ME HOME

In case you forgot about 1D being British, the Take Me Home cover is here to remind you, guv’nah! The lads swarm over a classic red telephone booth, all dressed like ushers for a hipster wedding. (Except Niall, who’s been locked inside the phone booth for flagrantly disregarding the wedding’s dress code.)

The vague sexual references in Take Me Home make it clear that by now, 1D has experienced dry humping. Their main subject matter becomes yearning, summer love, and parents not understanding your yearning summer love. On tour, their fashion took an edgy turn, shifting away from prep school chic to tight jeans, leather jackets and even—gasp—sleeveless T-shirts. They look like the rebellious love interests from a Disney Channel original movie. Take Me Home-era 1D will still get you home by curfew, but then they’ll pull around the block and wait for you to sneak out your window.

Midnight Memories (2013)

MIDNIGHT MEMORIES ONE D

This bizarrely decoupaged cover reveals a fresher 1D, an edgier 1D, a 1D who only wash their hair every other-other day. Gone are the squeaky clean brats from 2010. Now, the lads have facial hair and visible tattoos. For some inexplicable reason, Niall is wearing a University of Wisconsin-Madison T-shirt. Go Badgers!

They’re all old enough to commit felonies, so they’ve abandoned the boy prankster image and become full-fledged hooligans. In the “Midnight Memories” video, they run amok in London and Niall takes a full-on bite out of a rotating spit of meat. Does he know he has to pay for that whole thing now? Did he even consider the health code repercussions? It doesn’t matter, because he has a jean jacket and NO curfew and a mouth full of hot meat.

FOUR (2014)

ONE D FOUR

Instead of an official photoshoot, the double photos of the FOUR cover were apparently snapped by a marketing intern in a weird, wood-paneled conference room. This lack of effort is balanced out by the fact that they all look so, so handsome. Gone are the days of boyish laughs and vaguely inappropriate touching. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, looking sort of stoned. Louis dressed as the manager of a Pac-Sun circa 2004; Harry borrowed his hat from the Quaker Oatmeal man. The minimalist title floats at the center, probably a subtle tribute to the love interest from the hit teen series Divergent.

The most important thing that occurred during this era is that Harry started wearing Saint Laurent overcoats and thousand-dollar boots. The second-most important thing is that Zayn left the band. You can see it in his eyes in the bottom picture. That’s the awkward grimace of a dude trying to ditch your party. That’s the expression of a man who’s about to break your heart.

Made in the A.M. (2015)

ONE D MADE IN THE AM

Their forthcoming release, named after a reject Folgers slogan, has all the energy of four guys pretending to like each other until they finish their five-album contract. This is not an album cover so much as a Zayn-shaped hole. Liam and Niall can’t even be bothered to look into the camera—instead, they smile into the distance of their grim career aspects. More than anything else, it’s a photo of four guys who would rather be somewhere else.

The concept of this cover is “sitting down.” Harry perches strategically on top of the couch, clearly broadcasting that he will have the best solo career. The couch itself is too nice for the grungy concrete backdrop. This is the dungeon where Simon Cowell holds them hostage until they cough out the final tracks. The first single, “Drag Me Down,” is an arena rock tribute to the fans (with the bonus of a NASA-themed video where Harry very possibly falls in love with a robot). The second release, “Infinity,” is a blandly saccharine pop song with lines like “How many nights have you wished someone would stay? / Lie awake hoping they’re okay.” It gets a lot better when you realize it’s absolutely, no question, 100 percent about Zayn.

Today, we’re left with these five images, frozen in time. At least we can regain some control over our lives. Or, let’s be real, we’ll hug our 1D merchandise to our chests and watch the “Kiss You” video on loop. Boy bands aren’t forever, but boy band fans can be. How terrifying, how comforting. See you at the 2030 reunion tour. I’ll be the 50-year-old woman in the PROTECT HARRY STYLES T-shirt, singing along the loudest to “Don’t Forget Where You Belong.”

Megan Kirby writes all over the Internet. You can follow her at @megankirb.