One Direction’s Middling Swan Song ‘Made in the A.M.’
Matthew Munhall | Friday, November 13, 2015
There is a great series of photos by Angelina Castillo documenting the “sad dads” chaperoning their daughters at a One Direction concert. The dads in question couldn’t look more uncomfortable being in a football stadium that has been thoroughly reclaimed by teenage girls.
It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if these sad dads walked away pleasantly surprised by their daughters’ idols. With the strong support of their fervent fan base over the past five years, One Direction has been able to mature largely on its own terms, away from the market dictates of Top 40 radio. While the rest of pop was in its EDM phase, the British-Irish boy band was one of the few pop acts making music with power chords. Late-period One Direction has largely veered away from fizzy power pop and Mumford-esque folk-lite toward ’70s and ’80s-leaning dad rock.
The group has become somewhat like the LCD Soundsystem of boy bands: hyper self-aware in its presentation and explicit about its reference points. Like James Murphy’s much-missed band, too, One Direction is rather smartly going out while still on top. The group’s new album “Made in the A.M.” is its fifth in as many years — and likely their last, as the group is taking an “extended hiatus” beginning early next year.
One Direction’s members have said the album’s title refers to its genesis in early-morning songwriting sessions, but fans have suggested “A.M.” stands for “After Malik” (it’s the band’s first release since Zayn Malik’s departure from the group in March of this year). It’s difficult not to feel Malik’s absence on this album, as he was always the group’s best, and most distinct, vocalist. Unfortunately, this intra-group tension doesn’t seem to have translated into much of the music.
“Made in the A.M.” largely continues down the classic-rock path of 2014’s “Four.” Arguably the group’s high-water mark, “Four” boasted a trove of deep cuts like the “Rumours”-era Fleetwood Mac pastiche “Fireproof” and the Tears for Fears-aping “Stockholm Syndrome.” This album, however, lacks the same verve, even as the group continues mining their parents’ record collections for inspiration. Lead single “Drag Me Down” is a glossier take on The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” while bonus track “Walking in the Wind” is built around a clean guitar line ripped from Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Both are pleasant enough, but lack the infectious urgency of the group’s best work.
One Direction’s remaining members — Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Niall Horan — mostly sound tired after the non-stop cycle of touring and recording over the past five years. On “Perfect,” Styles responds to Taylor Swift’s “Style,” while basically borrowing the melody of that song’s chorus. “If you’re looking for someone to write your breakup songs about / Baby I’m perfect,” Styles sings, making it all too clear who he’s singing about. Yet even with Swift’s slinky ’80s synth pop track as source material, the end product is bland and inoffensive — practically a Maroon 5 b-side. The exhaustion is even more apparent on “End of the Day,” which Frankensteins together a verse and chorus from what sound likely two completely different songs.
When One Direction lock into the exuberance that made their music so appealing in the first place though, the results can still be exhilarating. “Lovely Rita” re-write “Olivia” is a charming love song, while “What a Feeling” revisits the Fleetwood Mac soft-rock well for inspiration to great effect. Closer “History” is an acoustic campfire singalong that serves a love-letter to the group’s fans and a summation of its career arc. “We can live forever!” they shout in unison. Whether One Direction continues to exist after its hiatus remains to be seen, but “Made in the A.M” makes clear just how well-needed that break is.
Tracks: “Olivia,” “What a Feeling”
Listen If You Like: Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon