So that’s it. It’s over.
One Direction’s “Made in the A.M.” arrives concurrently with the boy-band’s announcement of an indefinite hiatus. (Pronounced: “We’re breaking up, and hoping one of us can pull a Justin Timberlake and segue into adult-pop from teen scream-dream soundtrack.”)
For the group’s legion of mostly teen and mostly female fans, “Made in the A.M.” can be filed directly in the memory scrapbook upon its release, like a photo from senior prom, or the selfie you snapped while making a “duck face,” as Harry Styles cavorted across the stage behind you at Ralph Wilson Stadium in September. OMG! That was the best time, like, ever!
Five albums, five years, five cycles of seemingly endless touring, and five collections released just before Black Friday, in order to capitalize on the big-time holiday rush. But 1D didn’t make it to the finish line with all five members on board – Zayn Malik bailed on the band in March, blasting a major hole in the hull of the good ship One Direction, and that ship took on water immediately. The tour that stopped by the Ralph was, for all intents and purposes, a victory lap. Following that logic, “Made in the A.M.” should be the friendly wave to the crowd at the end of that victory lap. Which is to suggest that 1D and the team of writers and producers and Svengalis behind it could’ve simply phoned it in, cashed the check, headed for the horizon, and no one would’ve noticed.
That’s not exactly what happened, though.
“Made in the A.M.” is not a bold rewriting of the harmony-heavy teen-pop and arena-schlock formula that made 1D the *NSYNC of its generation, but it’s not as coldly cynical and lacking in commitment as one might have reasonably expected of such a “one foot out the door” project.
The four remaining members – Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson – sound committed to the project. That means that, for hardcore fans of the band, the mirage of a direct, personal relationship with the guys – that feeling that 1D is singing solely to you – is still in evidence. The songs, as ever, are about relationships – good ones, bad ones, ones that are better off viewed in the rearview mirror, like the one between Styles and Taylor Swift addressed during the insanely catchy “Perfect.” None of it is deep or particularly inventive. Lyrically, these are ideas that could be expressed in a text message or a particularly bulky Tweet. Musically speaking, 1D is peddling cutesy dance-pop, mild EDM, paint-by-numbers balladry, and hair-metal-lite chant-alongs in the mode of Def Leppard. So One Direction ends as One Direction began.
There is no trace here of the world weariness that constant touring and living life in the flashbulb glare of the paparazzi might’ve brought about for 1D, as they have done in Justin Bieber’s work. (Interestingly, the pop pity party that is Bieber’s “Purpose” out-sold 1D’s “Made in the A.M.” by a few hundred thousand units during the first week that the two albums were available. So perhaps fans of modern mainstream pop favor narcissistic melodrama over the sort of jubilant, devil-may-care sturdiness that One Direction presents as its image?)
It’s not likely that One Direction would do “dark” particularly well, anyway. Instead, these pop politicians preach directly to the base, each of “A.M.’s” 13 songs a fat-free stump speech designed to make it clear that these guys love their female teen fans as much as those female teen fans love them.
Most of these songs are like musical training bras, preparing their listeners for adulthood by offering them watered-down beginners versions of Brit-pop, (“Hey Angel”) ’80s arena-pop, (“What A Feeling”) and the turgid stride of Coldplay (every ballad on the album). There is nothing resembling spontaneity, nothing that might suggest a revelation of unscripted inner turmoil, not a single chorus or ear-worm or shrink-wrapped groove that doesn’t sound like it was vetted by a full committee of “pop song analysts” before it made the cut.
But if One Direction was your first serious crush, none of this really matters to you anyway. If you’re 15 now, you were 10 when One Direction arrived everywhere at once, intent on stealing your heart. You’ll defend them like you defend a childhood memory, artistic validity be damned.
So long, 1D. We hardly knew you.
Which, it seems, was the idea all along.
“Made in the A.M.”
2 stars (Out of four)