One Direction Points the Way Forward on Swan Song (For Now) ‘Made in the A.M.’: Album Review

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With the sudden departure of Zayn Malik in March, One Direction, one of the ­biggest boy bands in history, officially became a foursome. This naturally bolstered the Beatles comparisons fans have been making since 2011, when these new-millennium long-haired British lads topped the Billboard 200 with their debut album, Up All Night. Their three ­subsequent ­studio LPs also reached No. 1, and with "Perfect" -- the second single from Made in the A.M., their fifth album -- the former X Factor U.K. contestants notched their fifth top 10 debut on the Billboard Hot 100, breaking a record held by the original Fab Four.

Made in the A.M. arrives amid rumors that 1D will take an extended break in 2016 to focus on solo pursuits. But if break actually means breakup, as some have speculated, this new record could be the band's Abbey Road -- the final word from John, Paul, George and Ringo. And believe it or not, the set has some blatantly Beatles-esque moments.

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To be clear, Made in the A.M. is not a world-changing record, and 50 years from now, people won't study the cover photo to see whether Harry Styles -- arguably 1D's dreamiest dreamboat -- is sending some secret message with the way he's sitting. It's not even the type of top 40 album that poptimist ­tastemakers will deem secretly cool and dare indie kids to like. It does, however, highlight 1D's many charms -- tight harmonies, Ginsu-sharp hooks, a mix of boyish playfulness and melodramatic lover-man anguish -- and points a way forward for four talented guys ­looking to transcend pop-rock frivolities like 2011's "What Makes You Beautiful" and 2013's "Best Song Ever."

With these 13 tracks -- nine of which the band had a hand in writing -- One Direction does maturity much better than on its last album, 2014's ballad-heavy Four. Here, when the boys once again go trawling the '80s for inspiration, they swap ­Journey-style power-schlock for songs like "What a Feeling," a soulful soft-rocker strong enough to be someone's third-­favorite Hall & Oates jam. "Walking in the Wind," from the album's deluxe edition, is Paul Simon's Graceland for ­beginners. Best of all: the booming stadium-doo-wop oddity "Never Enough," which amazingly blends "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" with Phil Collins' "Sussudio."

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As for Beatles-biting bits: Opener "Hey Angel" pairs ­psychedelic guitars and strings with a kind of John-and-Yoko sentiment ("I wish I could be more like you/Do you wish you could be more like me?"). "Olivia" has the downbeat guitar strokes of "Getting Better" and the whimsical orchestration of "Penny Lane." The short and sweet acoustic ditty "I Want to Write You a Song" is 1D's "Blackbird" or "Two of Us."

No matter what One Direction references, though, the boys wind up sounding like what they are: a prefab 21st-century pop machine whose crack team of producers and writers (most ­notably longtime collaborators Julian Bunetta, Jamie Scott and John Ryan) churns out boilerplate love songs that rarely feel personal or look beyond 1D's vacuum-sealed bubble-gum world. The key ­exceptions are "Perfect" -- a cool synth-pop tune Styles ­seemingly co-wrote in response to ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift's strikingly similar kiss-and-tell "Style" -- and "History," the jaunty acoustic singalong that closes the album's standard edition. With a ­winking line about "mini-bars, ­expensive cars, hotel rooms and new ­tattoos," the track is end-credits music capping five years of triumph. "We could be the greatest thing the world has ever seen," they sing, a little bummed but mostly just excited for what's next. As we say goodbye, they say hello.

Listen to One Direction and other artists featured in this week's issue of Billboard.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of Billboard.

One Direction - Made in the A.M. Album Review