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."
One Direction's 'Perfect' Video: See Behind-the-Scenes Photos
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