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Review: One Direction Are Directionless on Inconclusive Finale ‘Made in the A.M.’

One Direction Performs On ABC's "Good Morning America"
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 04: (L-R) Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction perform on ABC's "Good Morning America" at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on August 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Label: Columbia / Syco

In the wee small hours? Maybe. Distracted and leaden, One Direction’s Made in the A.M. is the first album since their 2011 debut to offer hits plus filler. On 2013’s Midnight Memories and last year’s spectacular Four, non-singles like “Fireproof,” “Midnight Memories,” “Girl Almighty” demonstrated the range of their iPhone music collection, from Def Leppard stadium chants to fierce acoustic strumming. Best was “No Control,” which inserted what sounded like record scratches over a clipped new wave rhythm section and all the handclaps that come with it, while batshit harmonies screamed me-so-horny come-ons at an audience asked to believe that the boys were powerless. It was 1D’s greatest moment, approximating what Brad Nelson called “a form of glam rock that’s rushing at you in three dimensions,” and it’s possible they don’t have any of that left after Zayn Malik took his uncertain tenor to the ghostwriter who will ink his memoir about surviving the 2010s’ biggest boy band.

To understand the Malik mythos and its contribution to the quintet requires hours on message boards (and glances at slash fic), but Made in the A.M. honors his memory by including more “sensitivity,” which in 1D’s hands means an awareness of the utility of flattery. “What Makes You Beautiful,” sure, but in 2015 it’s “Perfect,” and, man, what a difference a few years makes. Co-writers Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson can’t mention groupies; instead they hint at the kind of girls who know the boys like to “cause trouble up in hotel rooms,” while Tomlinson’s chorus on “Long Way Down” babbles about spaceships they can’t land, sung as pallid as a corpse. Malik might have inhabited this doggerel, but on this evidence, remaining with his mates would have meant mouthing I’m-dishonest-but-f**k-me-anyway sentiments like the Weeknd thinks he gets away with.

The insistence on democracy means 1D still understand the dynamics of a quartet. Tomlinson is the best belter, the well-named Styles the sassfest, while Liam Payne sounds like the Fall Out Boy fan. Complaints about their voices matters less when a section gets apportioned to the singer best equipped to inhabit it. “What a Feeling” gives each singer his showcase, pathos ascending while a bass line pulls at the drums, very much in the vein of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” When the chorus hits, the quartet blasts en masse. They’re not the Beach Boys (or Mac) but they understand how to build pathos. Even the brief, tense guitar solo fits.

And so: the beguiling “What a Feeling” rules, and a Turtles throwback sung by Liam Payne called “Olivia” decorated with strings and Mellotron passages comes close. Most of Made in the A.M. comes close, actually. The pounded-out power-pop of a bonus track called “Temporary Fix” comes very close. But 1D’s swan song is hopelessly neither here nor there, appropriate to the drinking-age attention spans of an act whose solo careers beckon. For three years, One Direction have reinvested their dough in collaborators, like a corporation upgrading its supply line. Now they’re divesting, piece by piece.