A handful of print publications (The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post) have made the mistake of conflating Justin Bieber’s comeback album Purpose with One Direction’s Made in the A.M., reviewing the two in conjunction with one another as though they're interchangeable hit machines who boast similar playing fields, genre-wise.

And sure, at one point they were — One Direction swooped into the pop stratosphere just as Bieber’s public unraveling and legal infractions branded him as high-valued tabloid fodder. But where Bieber’s Purpose is something of a redemptive re-emergence, One Direction’s Made in the A.M. is a farewell-for-now, though it’s quite possibly a farewell forever. More jarring a difference are their respective genres -- they're both still technically pop, but Bieber favors a more R&B leaning sound while One Direction recall the arena-ready soft rock anthems of '70s and '80s bands: The only thing remotely comparable about the two are their armies of teenage worshippers.

That's not to say One Direction is without its drama. The band lost their best vocalist when living-statue Zayn Malik shucked all responsibilities, quitting abruptly in the middle of a world tour to live his truth as a #RealMusic maker. A lesser band probably would've followed suit —but One Direction regrouped and returned, ensuring fans that they were better than before.

It seemed a little put-on, this newfound unity, but it turns out they were right.

Made in the A.M., their fifth album in as many years, kicks off with the alt-pop gem "Hey Angel," and it's a hell of an opener. A soaring track that recalls The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," it packs a light punch with the smallest dose of muddy guitars -- a la Love Spit Love's cover of "How Soon Is Now?" -- and a stellar vocal performance from 1D's Mick Jagger-ian force, Harry Styles.

That's a confluence of sonic references your average listener might not equate with what is, essentially, a well-oiled hit machine that caters largely to the tween subset. But we'd be remiss to ignore the musical evolution One Direction have seen since their inception -- they've come a long way from the saccharine sweet bubblegum-pop of their fresh-faced Up All Night debut.

Five albums in, the band has definitively settled on its sound: Feet planted firmly on the rockier side of pop. They borrow from soft-rock heavyweights like The Police, Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon -- sometimes a little too heavily -- but good artists borrow, great artists steal, right?

Thankfully, it works. For the most part.

Tracks like the reggae-infused "Drag Me Down" and the super sleek, Taylor Swift call-out "Perfect" are custom-made arena anthems — pop with just enough of a defiant edge to note the group's newfound maturity, and two steps forward from their adequate last effort Four.

That album saw a more subtle nod to their influences, edging them further toward the pop-rock realm than ever before. But they're more confident in borrowing sounds on Made in the A.M., and it shows. The Fleetwood Mac-inspired "What A Feeling" is a true standout, its verses boasting a vocal melody that vaguely recalls the Foo Fighters' "Dear Rosemary," debatable as it may be that any members of 1D have heard that track at all. Still, the song is killer -- a mid-tempo mammoth of a melody with intricate guitar work that lends itself to the song's hazy quality.

The doo-wop inspired "Never Enough" is like an updated version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" -- it's a snappy explosion of a track, punctuated by grunts and a persistent "c'mon!" reminiscent of Michael Jackson's signature yelp (a blasphemous comparison if ever there was one).

But the colorful "Olivia" is One Direction's true Beatles moment, and it's long overdue. The track is a bouncy, orchestral celebration, with a bridge that bites Willy Wonka but avoids the cheese factor. Its lyrics would be cringe-worthy if they didn't fit so well with the song's over-the-top theme ("The summertime and butterflies / All belong to your creation"), but it's part of that lovesick charm, and Made in the A.M. is oozing with it.

Barring the emotive "Night Changes" and now-nostalgic "More Than This," ballads have never been One Direction's strong suit, and it's largely where Made in the A.M. falls flat, too. The power ballad "Love You Goodbye," is a melodramatic ode to break-up sex, but it would work better without the whining guitar solo. Meanwhile, the schmaltzy "If I Could Fly" is a barely upgraded version of the Styles-penned "Just A Little Bit of Your Heart" -- an overwrought, piano-driven snoozefest that was mercifully dumped on Ariana Grande instead.

The earnest "I Want to Write You a Song" fares much better, clunky boat analogy and all ("I want to build you a boat / One as strong as you are free"). Comparable to The Beatles' "Blackbird," the song's strength is in its simplicity: It never tries to do too much, and its pen-to-paper scratching is a subtle nod to the track's title. Its closing verse also doubles as a bittersweet farewell to fans: "I want to write you a song / One to make your heart remember me / So anytime I’m gone / You can listen to my voice and sing along." It would be a sweet gesture if it weren't so goddamn sad.

The production on Made in the A.M. is, overall, what you'd expect: Longtime 1D collaborators Julian Bunetta and John Ryan ensure that everything is shined to high-heaven with slick, clean lines. But some tracks would've benefited from a bit more teeth to them, particularly the more guitar-heavy cuts like "Temporary Fix" and "Long Way Down." The former, an ode to one-night stands, has chunky guitar riffs that might've been confused for the opening of a Strokes song if they were a bit more muddled.

But One Direction are, of course, still decidedly pop -- no number of put-on allusions to break-up sex or booty calls will turn them into hardened rockers overnight. And it's just as well -- they still deliver magnificently on the pop front. With all of its jangling guitars, soaring melodies and conversational vocals, the exemplary "Walking in the Wind" is equal parts Paul Simon and Phil Collins -- a more mature pop than we're used to from the group, but pop nonetheless. Then there's the uptempo jaunt "Wolves," demonstrative '70s pop at its finest, with an opening that recalls Queen's "You're My Best Friend," before it launches into a percussive-heavy verse and a feel-good chorus punctuated by airy ooohs. It's a shame these two were relegated to Bonus Track status.

The album ends with the weary "A.M.," a campfire track brimming with bittersweet finality: "Won't you stay til the A.M.? / All my favorite conversations always made in the A.M." So it is that the sun is likely setting on One Direction. But if this is their swan song, so be it -- it's a great way to go out.

One Direction Review

See One Direction Through The Years