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Track Review

It's a surprising thing to be taken by surprise by a boy band.

In the wake of New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the genre's romance-meets-boy-next-door-meets-gang-vocals template is firmly established. Still, One Direction—the boy band du jour for the '10s—managed to surprise me on not just one, or two, but three levels with its latest effort, the pop-folk ballad "Story of My Life."

Yeah, you read that right: I said pop-folk.

This hit from these five songbirds from across the pond builds upon an understated and sensitive acoustic guitar melody. There's nary a trace of group's primary musical DNA—that being infectious, synthesized electro-pop dance hooks—to be found. Instead, the spare, simple ode to love on the rocks sounds for all the world like something these guys (plus their hired-gun songwriting posse, no doubt) might have grudgingly penned if holed up for a month in a cabin listening to nothing but Mumford & Sons, Simon & Garfunkel, Phillip Phillips and Plain White T's.

That's surprise No. 1.

Surprise No. 2 comes in the form of earnest lyrics about why romantic relationships don't seem to be panning out. In contrast to the majority of the songs on One Direction's last album, Take Me Home, what the guys seem to want here isn't more sex (though that physical intimacy is still implied), but more emotional intimacy in relationships that are foundering.

"I leave my heart open but it stays right here empty for days," we hear. "She told me in the morning she don't feel the same way about us in her bones."

Lines elsewhere hint at similar problems, with one would-be Romeo wondering whether he's clinging too tightly ("The fire beneath my feet is burning so bright/The way that I've been holding on so tight/With nothing in between") and another victim of unrequited love painfully trying to admit that the woman he's pining away for is never coming back ("And I'll be waiting for this time to come around/But baby, running after you is like chasing the clouds").

The chorus offers a mirror-image take on those problems, one in which another guy has no problem sweeping a girl off her feet (and, again, into bed) but can't commit afterwards, leaving her brokenhearted and empty: "The story of my life/I take her home/I drive all night to keep her warm/And time is frozen." That's followed by further confession: "The story of my life/I give her hope/I spend her love/Until she's broke inside/The story of my life."

There's a sad wistfulness mingled with self-awareness here as this commitment-phobic rascal realizes that leaving a long string of broken hearts behind him isn't a good thing … even as he seems unsure how to change that damaging pattern. And his (and the band's) willingness to ponder why things aren't working feels like a big leap forward from previous 1D songs about merely picking up someone new at a club and taking her home for a night of casual carnality.

Still, the sexual connections implied in the tune's two longer vignettes don't help much in sorting through these kinds of romantic troubles. And powerful romanticism cloaks the assumption that loving someone and sleeping with them unquestionably go together. That's an assumption that deserves to be questioned, no matter how misty-eyed and gushy a song like this one might make any of us feel.

Speaking of misty eyes, surprise No. 3 comes from the song's video—which has nothing at all to do with romance. Instead, the video's producers have riffed artistically off of the song's title, "Story of My Life." Most of its runtime shows the guys in a vaulted, circular room filled with pictures of them with various family members taken earlier in their lives. And it begins with the five guys developing those pictures in a darkroom (as if anyone their age still did that!). These pseudo-magical images then show them as little boys surrounded by loved ones, before zooming into the same scenes in the present with the same family members still there.

What's the surprise? It's how powerfully these visual representations of family and the passage of time worked on me. I'm 43, hardly One Direction's target demographic. And yet as I watched the video, I couldn't help but think about the story of my own life, of how it connects to my wife and children, my parents, siblings and grandparents—not to mention how fast it all goes and how truly precious those relationships are. It's a video that left me unexpectedly emotional and nostalgic, and I suspect I won't be the only viewer who has that response.

A postscript: There's one other thing that needs to be said about "Story of My Life." For all that seems earnest and confessional here, casting Harry, Niall, Zayn, Liam and Louis in the roles of struggling, longing, heartbroken young bachelors yearning to make their romantic relationships work is shrewd, shrewd, shrewd marketing on the part of the band's handlers and producers. To the extent that a young female fan is invited to see herself as the one who could make her favorite 1D singer truly happy, this is the kind of song that many young listeners will likely put on repeat for hours on end. And I can only imagine the kind of emotional pandemonium that will break loose when the much-loved lads break out the acoustics to perform this little ditty live.

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