Niall Horan recognized the lyric was something of a risk.
A key part of “Slow Hands” — the top-20 solo hit by this member of the British boy band One Direction — the iffy line likens his lover’s touch not to a summer breeze or a kiss from a rose but to “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry.”
On the page it’s vaguely nauseating. Yet as Horan delivers the words in his breathy croon, backed by a creeping funk groove, the image conjures a sensuality you can almost feel.
How’d he know it would fly?
“I was with some friends of mine and we were just kind of shouting out lyrics,” the singer said recently. “And when we shouted that one — I think it was me who spat it out — the rest of the people in the room didn’t go, ‘Echhh.’ ” He laughed. “They weren’t horrified by it.”
Any young songwriter wants to find language to set his work apart. But Horan may be more motivated than most: Nearly two years after his stadium-filling quartet went on hiatus in early 2016, Horan is but one of four twentysomething men now tending to post-One Direction solo careers.
Each is looking to demonstrate that life exists after a boy band — that the promise of adventurous solo work with more grown-up themes is worth putting off the inevitable revival of a proven cash cow. And this fall will be busy for all of them.
Horan recently launched a world tour that’s scheduled to stop Sept. 19 at the Hollywood Palladium, just weeks before the release in October of his debut solo album, “Flicker.” The day after Horan’s show, his bandmate Harry Styles will play the Greek Theatre on Sept. 20, part of a tour behind the self-titled debut he released in May.
Liam Payne is at No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with his first solo single, “Strip That Down.” And following recent collaborations with Steve Aoki and Bebe Rexha, Louis Tomlinson is working on an album he’s suggested will take inspiration from Oasis and Arctic Monkeys.
Then there’s Zayn Malik, the bedroom-eyed heartthrob who left One Direction in 2015 but still travels in the boy band’s heady orbit. Known these days by his first name alone, Zayn put out his critically acclaimed solo debut, “Mind of Mine,” in 2016 and is now putting the finishing touches on a follow-up due before the end of the year.
Asked what he makes of this competition from his former co-workers, Horan said he doesn’t see it that way. “If we were making the same kind of music, then fair enough — you could start a rivalry,” he said. “Me and Liam, we’re currently up there in the charts. But we have completely different sounds.”
That’s not untrue. Where “Slow Hands” nods to the music of soulful white dudes like Don Henley (whose “Dirty Laundry” was an avowed influence), “Strip That Down” is a slickly digitized R&B track featuring Quavo of the Atlanta rap trio Migos.
“You know I used to be in 1D / People want me for one thing,” Payne sings, “I’m not changing the way that I used to be / I just wanna have fun and get rowdy.”
For “Mind of Mine,” Zayn took a stab at the type of sprawling electronic soul music popularized by Frank Ocean and Miguel — a sound he says reflected “a growth period in terms of me as a writer, in terms of me as a singer, in terms of me as a person.”
And Styles? He went so deep into 1960s and ’70s rock that Stevie Nicks felt compelled to join him for several numbers when he played the Troubadour a few months ago.
Still, at a moment when listeners have more demands on their attention than ever before, there’s only so much time a person can give to any male pop star not named Justin Bieber.
Perhaps that’s why Zayn said he “tried to focus more on quality rather than quantity” for his upcoming album.
“I think on my first record I had a lot of material — I just tried to get it all out,” he said in an interview. “And a result of that was I ended up writing 60-odd songs when you only need about 20.”
Indeed, “Mind of Mine” showcased an ambitious artist reaching hard to say everything he had to say about love and music and spirituality; it even had a song performed in Urdu, the native language of Zayn’s Pakistani father. Yet the album only spun off a single radio hit in “Pillowtalk,” a plush but trippy ode to the kind of sex that makes a couple feel like “it’s our paradise and it’s our war zone.”
This time, Zayn said, he’s concentrating “on each individual song — spending more time on them and trying to make them better, rather than having loads of songs that might not be as good.”
That approach mirrors what Julian Bunetta, a songwriter and producer who collaborated extensively with One Direction, said he sought to do while working on Horan’s “Flicker.”
In 1D, Horan was often seen strumming an acoustic guitar; one easy way to think about him was as the band’s Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote several 1D songs, including the lovely “18”). And that impression certainly deepened with Horan’s first solo single, the folky “This Town.”
For his album, though, Bunetta wanted to help Horan establish a distinct sound: music that clearly draws from the singer’s classic-rock favorites — the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills & Nash — even as it highlights his unique wordplay and quirky sense of humor.
“You don’t try to be like, ‘Well, if Niall was more like Ed Sheeran …,’ or, ‘If Niall was more like Coldplay …,’” the producer said. “You just do what’s best for Niall.”
Horan himself said he hopes “Flicker,” like that raunchy lyric in “Slow Hands,” reveals a side of him he wasn’t quite able to show in the tightly managed environment of a world-famous boy band.
He’s eager too to get on the road and bring his solo stuff to life — just one guy with a microphone now, instead of four or five.
“It might sound arrogant, but at this point I feel 100% comfortable up there onstage,” he said. “It seems like home.”
This story is part of our Fall 2017 arts preview. See our complete coverage here.
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