Monday, November 16, 2015

album review: 'made in the a.m.' by one direction

This will be the third time I've reviewed One Direction. It will also probably be the last.

And no, that's not because of any vendetta or grudge I have - I've accepted that their years of teen girl-baiting crap are behind them, mostly left on 2013's Midnight Memories as the guys have grown up and taken more of a role in songwriting. They've gotten older, presumably more mature... and along the way, Zayn left the group. 

And look, I've seen this road before. Having one of your more unique and talented singers of the group exit is never a good sign for boy bands, and the news that One Direction would be going on 'hiatus' after this album sealed it for me. In other words, One Direction were entering the Unbreakable-era of their career, the album made to convince fans that they can still hold things together even minus one member, and it almost always signifies real trouble. Now for the Backstreet Boys that eventually resulted in a more modern pop effort with This Is Us before Kevin rejoined... and yet somehow I don't see that happening. Hell, I can imagine Simon Cowell was probably planning for it too - sales figures have been dropping for each One Direction release, and with an album dropped every year he had know they were approaching burnout. So instead of giving them time off or a little more space to really refine their music, it looks like he's decided to milk the cash cow until she drops.

To put it another way, I was under no expectations this record would be anything close to good. Not only were there less writing credits from the group, but none of the lead-off singles had really impressed me the same way songs like the excellent 'Night Changes' had, so I expected trouble. So how did Made In The A.M. turn out?

Well, it's somehow both more and less than I expected. With rare exceptions, there is a rough standard of quality to Made In The A.M. that saves it from being bad, and I'd argue that One Direction makes the right dramatic decision in playing for a finale vibe. But on the other hand, One Direction really didn't go out with a bang here - more of a tired sigh, with the energy sorely lacking and the instrumentation not having the same colour. And given that a lot of people tend to remember endings, I'm not sure that was the note this particular group wanted to leave on.

So let's get the most painful part out of the way first - yes, One Direction is hurt by the loss of Zayn Malik, more than they'd like to admit. What his slightly rougher and lower tones provided was foundation and a bit of grit, and while it's compensated by the others dipping more into their lower range and their voices naturally deepening, it's not as natural and it renders many of the already bare-bones harmonies feeling incomplete. I'll give them props for trying to emote more in that range - Harry puts in a lot of work here, and they do shift to give Liam and Niall a little more time in the spotlight - but even on the choruses they don't feel nearly as full and potent as they could - it's like with Unbreakable and The Backstreet Boys, I understand the feeling.

And sadly, just like Unbreakable, the music is a complete mess with compositional choices that range from conventional to off-kilter to the point of misguided and some of the most inconsistent production I've heard since the last time I covered a Syco Music album. Let me put it like this: it's a bad sign when the best moments on this record are the prechorus of 'Drag Me Down' - which actually has some killer swell that the buzzed-out staccato riff can do nothing to pay off - and the retro groove of 'What A Feeling', which might as well be 'Fireproof' part two. And it's not even like I can point to these mixes being percussion overloaded so much as that they feel way too big and washed out to really compliment the group, especially minus their harmonic foundation. The guitar tones are either liquid and shoved right to the back of the mix or they're so distorted and compressed to have absolutely no swell or melody at all, so even if the basslines are often good, there's nothing to really support them.  And that's before we get moments like the clunky tempo shift on 'End Of The Day' or the title track 'Hey Angel' which reminded me way too much of 'Millennium' by Robbie Williams or the bizarre choice to drench everything in so much reverb and mist that the instrumentation loses all of its colour or spark. I might not have liked the painfully thin stabs at other genres on Midnight Memories, but at least there was more life and vibrancy to the production that this! Of course, then we get 'Never Enough' which tries for a jungle vibe with the beefy shouts, screams, and painfully fake horns that sounds less like any sort of sex jam and more like a garbled 'Hooked on a Feeling'. What's weird is that it's then followed 'Olivia', a goofy acoustic-touched jam with bouncy piano and there's what sounds like real horns - it's the same production duo, how it can it sound so different? But what's really telling is that for all of the bombast, this record rarely has the hooks to really grab me beyond fragments, and playing most of it in washed-out, late 80s early listening tones is not the way to do it!

Okay, fine, so what about lyrics? Well, the best thing I can say is that they're a mixed bag that for the most part seem to focus on that impending hiatus and ending with the hope of rebirth. And this is mostly uncharted territory for One Direction, because while love and hookup songs like 'Hey Angel' or 'If I Could Fly' or the clumsily written acoustic ballad 'I Want To Write You A Song' - which hilariously One Direction did not write - or even 'End Of The Day' are easy enough for them to sell, breakup songs or tracks where they're trying to sustain something falling apart are a much different matter. And between the clinging desperation of 'Drag Me Down' or the last-ditch swing for one last night together on 'Love You Goodbye', it's shockingly unflattering, mostly because you get the impression rejection isn't something One Direction are used to experiencing, at least not outside their terms. The funny thing is that when they're talking about relationships that they couldn't really control things falling apart, like 'Infinity' or especially on 'What A Feeling', they feel a lot more mature and thoughtful, or at least not so confessional they just fall into awkward territory like the half hookup/half vulnerable 'Perfect' which may or may not be directed at Taylor Swift. What's interesting is that while many fans have assumed 'Infinity' is the song talking about Zayn's departure - which I doubt, considering the chorus is calling the person 'baby' - the song that is much more believable in that role is 'Long Way Down', speaking of building so much only for it not to go to good use, missed opportunities and chances - it's actually got a lot of pull to it, and the half-empty instrumentation actually works as an asset here.

But as the album ends with 'History', you get the impression that One Direction are at least trying to give their fans some hope that they'll be back... but frankly, I doubt it. Hate to say it but with Made In The AM only being lukewarm and with Zayn's absence all the more obvious in the rushed and sloppy compositions, you can tell this was Syco Music and Simon Cowell forcing out the last scraps of a group on the edge of burnout who at least tried to give their audience a send-off. Noble intentions that I can respect, but the execution really doesn't add to much, especially in comparison with the stronger record Four. And yet I'm inclined to be charitable here, to a boy band I've never really liked at least trying to go out well, so I'm going to give it a very, very light 6/10 and really only a recommendation to the fans. Not great by any stretch, but I can respect the effort. And let's hope for the fans' sake that as long as there'll be music they'll be coming back again...

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