There’s a battle raging on the internet today, one that might’ve slipped under your nose entirely if your interest in pop music is minimal at best. Reformed shithead Justin Bieber is capping off an apologetic year-long comeback parade with a new album bearing three top 10 singles, Purpose; the tousled imps of One Direction are releasing their first album without Zayn Malik and last before an indefinite hiatus, Made in the A.M.
The chicken-egg question of aesthetics and commercialism — what came first, the sound or the sale? — looms over almost every major pop record, but it’s especially important here. Bieber and the boys of 1D are artists, but they’re also global products unto themselves. The fate of hundreds of jobs, thousands of "slay me daddy" Twitter accounts, and several perfume lines depend on these albums achieving competence. One of these albums looks into the future, and the other looks into the past; the direction of their gazes is governed by the market pressures being levied on them both.
If you’re in the mood for wide-eyed musical self-flagellation, Purpose is the album for you. It’s one of the most focused, relentless displays of penitence in recent memory, the cherry on top of a cake made with Ellen appearances, fawning profiles, and MTV tears. You can question the sincerity, but you have to respect the commitment to the sale. The EDM-pop crossovers suggested by the album’s phenomenally successful singles — Skrillex / Diplo collaboration "Where Are Ü Now," the light dancehall of "Sorry," tropical house cut "What Do You Mean?" — have come together to make a sort of Trojan horse. Half of this album toys with varying strains of dance-pop, but the other half is wispy, studied R&B, grown-up versions of songs on 2013’s fine Journals stripped of their panting lust. (A few bonus tracks live in a specific space between, a zone inhabited by artists like the Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat and UK duo AlunaGeorge.)
A coat of treacle covers every inch of Purpose
"It’s hard to make meaningful songs that make you want to dance because it can come off cheesy," said Bieber in a recent Billboard cover story. "In the past I’ve recorded songs that I didn’t like, that I wouldn’t listen to, that the label was telling me to record… I want my music to be inspiring." It’s a noble goal, but it’s culminated in a coat of treacle that covers every inch of Purpose. He spouts platitudes over a heavy piano line on "Life Is Worth Living," tries to sneak inspirational martyrdom pap into a club banger on "Children," and speaks directly to a higher power on the album’s title track. And though he sounds fantastic on all of these songs — he’s realized his potential as a vocalist, balancing a breathy, gentle deftness with real power — they begin to feel oppressive.
It turns out Bieber’s innovation on Purpose has little to do with style and everything to do with faith. This is the rare big-tent pop album that’s explicitly Christian; it never takes its eye off repentance, and the love songs are devoted to God, not Selena Gomez. Given what’s at stake, is that really a surprise? Bieber’s never been truly radioactive from a commercial perspective, not even at his nadir in terms of public opinion, but this is his first official studio album in three years. He and his team need to do more than nail this album — they need to build a foundation for the next decade-plus of Bieber’s career. Purpose is going to restore his credibility and safety, but he’s made music that’s more relaxed and more fulfilling. There’s a Bieber album on the horizon that’s less workshopped and operating under fewer constraints, and it’ll be the one where he starts to realize this newly ambitious vision.
On the other side of the pond, One Direction aren’t trying to plan for 2020 or restore themselves to respectability — they’re just trying to get this thing over the finish line. The band has now released a new album every November for a half-decade straight, a remarkable display of productivity and stamina, and that level of consistency has managed to relegate their musical product to relative unimportance. A new batch of One Direction songs gives the band a reason to tour and gives their army of fans new material to dissect, celebrate, and discuss; the songs themselves could be almost anything. This sounds depressing, but in actuality it gives the band a surprising amount of artistic liberty, freedom they’ve used to become the world’s most popular classic rock band.
Made in the A.M. is the first One Direction album made without Zayn Malik, and while his absence is notable, it doesn’t have much of an impact on the sound or sentiment of these songs. Malik was the group’s strongest singer and its member least interested in making Journey pastiche, but he didn’t assert himself in the band’s songwriting. ("His taste in music was always a bit different," said Liam Payne in October, "which I guess is what drove him to do what he did in the end — which is not necessarily a bad thing." So diplomatic!) Made in the A.M. continues down the path laid out by last year’s Four, the band’s best album by a country mile. Ask these boys about the canon and they’ll tell you music started making sense somewhere around Revolver and tailed off shortly after (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It’s predictable, but it’s also adorable.
There's a hair-metal ballad about the agony and ecstasy of breakup sex
There are some new tricks tucked within the familiar frame. Jagger acolyte Harry Styles tips his hat toward ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift with "Perfect," ripping off a hit ("Style") she wrote about their relationship for his own pithy kiss-off, and it’s so brazen it works. Country music creeps into the formula on the dusky, melodramatic "Long Way Down"; fantastic bonus track "Wolves" cribs its bounce from Motown and its stomp from glam; "Love You Goodbye" is a hair-metal ballad about the agony and ecstasy of transcendent breakup sex. Malik’s departure has forced everyone to carry a little more vocal weight: they’ve never sung more harmony, and Styles and Liam Payne sound more mature, powerful, and distinct than ever.
There’s a lot riding on Made in the A.M., an album that needs to sustain the groaning One Direction machine and serve as a satisfying goodbye to millions of obsessed fans, and yet it manages to sound relaxed. It tricks you into believing the stakes are low. The band’s been working with the same core group of songwriters since its first album, and there’s a comfort to be found in the structure and worn quality of these songs. Its remaining members sing with palpable joy and obvious enthusiasm for the kind of music they’re making. It sounds like it was a pleasure to make, not an ordeal. I listen to Purpose and feel Bieber and his collaborators on the other side of the screen, waiting for my reaction with bated breath. Hearing Made in the A.M. is like walking in on a bunch of friends goofing off around a campfire. That’s why I can see myself returning to the latter much more often, despite its resolute unfashionableness: the pressure’s high, but it sounds weightless.