One Direction's 5th album "Made in the a.m." is either their swan song or pre-hiatus treat. Whichever of those it ends up being, it certainly plays like a swan song. The mood is all subdued pop-rock torch songs, with the occasional dash of bounce to speed things up a tad. A bit more variety would have served them better, but they manage to wring some catchy moments out of this approach even so.
Not a group to fix what isn't broken, they wisely stick with long time musician/producer/collaborators Julian Bunetta & John Ryan. This time around, they are still lost in the 80's, but the influence they're wearing on their sleeves is telegraphed straight out of a Don Henley ballad, or more often Bryan Adams in full blown super-schlock slow croon mode. They even throw in a dash of Coldplay-aping skyscraping sounds on "Infinity." Even as they raise the roof up, the mood drops right back into subdued and mellow territory with "If I could fly" which is emblematic of the main problem with this disc. 1D have always managed to expand just a little bit past the usual boy band formula - primarily because they've steered well clear of the pop R&B / new jack swing sounds that were favored by groups like Backstreet Boys, N'Sync and the like. The trouble here is that almost every single song is built to be a crowd-pleasing swooner. One of those songs where if it were played live, every lighter (or these days, every cell phone) would go up as the crowd swayed along to the music. It isn't to say they can't do these songs well - when it comes to sugar-packed bubble gum pop injected with just enough pop rock grit to keep it from sounding too over-the-top sweet, 1D and their collaborators have the recipe for that style of pop down to a science. Occasionally though, this approach gets a bit too close to outright copycat moves. The Fleetwood Mac riff-aping "What a feeling" is one example... and "Olivia" is 1D trying to sound like they think they're the beatles. They get just a tad too close to "ripping off" territory - but not quite close enough to fully toss that criticism at them. And stepping away from talk of their influences for a moment - album highlight is certainly "Love you goodbye" which plays as a [possibly] intentional sequel-song to "Spaces" off their last album. It's sad-sack power balladry at its finest, with just the right amount of power-ballad guitar embellishment to really drive the feeling home.
What's missing is [again] the variety. On "Four" there were more sprightly numbers to liven up the proceedings, from "No Control" to the so-catchy-it-hurts "Change Your Ticket." Here, those moments are few and far between ("Temporary Fix" is a welcome respite from the slow croon numbers) but they aren't slotted in often enough to change things up quite often enough. It feels like the remaining 4 members of 1D treated this too much like a going away album, and in doing so made polished boy-band pop rock that has all the joy sucked right out of it. Bunetta & Ryan manage to spin up catchy instrumentation for their voices still, sure - but the spark just isn't there. Perhaps a sign they would benefit from a break, and perhaps trying to stretch beyond their boundaries a bit - including the potential for doing solo work without the crutch of their long time collaborators - which would lend them a credibility that, even 5 albums in, they don't quite have yet - although they're grasping for it even so. "Made in the a.m." is 1D doing what they do well and still trying to stretch beyond the sounds that made them.