One Direction’s fifth album, Made In The A.M., arrives at a strange time in the band’s existence. Not only did Zayn Malik leave the group in early 2015, but the other members also announced they’re taking a break from 1D duties in 2016 in favor of solo work. Made In The A.M. doesn’t feel like a lame duck record, however: With no looming touring responsibilities or excessive promotional pressure on deck, the band has been freed up to focus on well-executed songcraft.
In fact, Made In The A.M. proudly (and prominently) feels indebted to other eras and totems of U.K. pop. Both the soaring, crooning “Hey Angel” and the Willy Wonka-playful, orchestral standout “Olivia” recall Robbie Williams’ cheeky music; the disco-kissed “What A Feeling” recalls both ’70s AM Gold and the late-’80s sophisti-pop movement; and the confetti-electro explosion “Infinity” shimmers like a transcendent Coldplay song. The album’s retro nods are even more subtle: “Never Enough” boasts a snappy, a cappella-like recurring rhythmic base and cheesy-but-charming ’80s Top 40 horns, while “Love You Goodbye” is bolstered by a power-ballad-caliber electric guitar.
More than anything, Made In The A.M. strives for timelessness. The meticulous, standout ballad “If I Could Fly” gives each band member a chance to take the vocal spotlight—and boasts some gorgeous multi-part harmonies—while featuring only sparse piano and watercolor strings as decoration. Elsewhere, the plaintive, acoustic guitar-driven “I Want To Write You A Song” has folk-pop roots, and the old-school boy band nod “Perfect” slips in a sneaky nod to Harry Styles’ ex, Taylor Swift: “And if you’re looking for someone to write your breakup songs about, baby I’m perfect.”
But Made In The A.M. isn’t a bitter album, and it’s not interested in female character assassination. Like previous One Direction albums, its lyrics depict fairy-tale, aspirational romances, and characterize women like treasure. “What a feeling to be a king beside you, somehow,” the band sings at one point, while other songs whisper sweet nothings about running away together, getting into (clandestine, but not at all criminal) mischief, and salvaging a broken relationship. With the amount of misogyny swirling around pop music in 2015, it’s refreshing to hear a record that’s so female-friendly—and so sincere about its intentions.
Fittingly, Made In The A.M. ends with the doo-wop-inspired “History.” Lyrically, the song’s commitment to not letting a good thing slip away is a metaphor for both a good relationship and One Direction itself. However, even if the band members don’t return from their break, they can rest easy: They’ve gone out on a high note, because Made In The A.M. is One Direction’s best, most accomplished album.