Teen idols are the American Pharoahs of the pop world: beautiful creatures bred to dazzle and destined for early retirement. Obsolescence is literally built into the job description. So what’s a young superstar supposed to do when the mustaches have grown in and the clock is running out? If you’re Justin Bieber—possibly the most scrutinized public figure in America not currently running for office or married to Kanye West—you make your fourth studio album, Purpose, a definitive statement of young manhood, full of deeply meta references to fame and maturity and persecution by the press. If you’re One Direction, you basically pretend nothing has changed and produce Made in the A.M., another deft collection of shiny, hermetically sealed anthems. (Rogue member Zayn Malik may have quit the band or just run out for sushi; you won’t learn any salacious details here. There’s also no reference to the group’s upcoming indefinite hiatus.)
Both releases basically succeed at their very different aims, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that these artists still command some of the best back-line talent in the business—and are all, whether detractors like to admit it or not, very good at what they do. Bieber’s sound is much more deliberately of the moment: a skittering, metallic synthesis of dance music and modern R&B whose evolution probably owes a lot to new-school collaborators Diplo and Skrillex, as well as the lesser-known production wizard Poo Bear. The early Purpose singles that have become chart smashes—“Sorry,” “Where Are Ü Now?” and “What Do You Mean?”—are stripped down for maximum aerodynamics, the vocals mentholated and sweetened with a brushstroke of bass here, a snake-charmer synth line there. A number of songs directly address the unbearable lightness of being Bieber: the tabloid Truman Show he can’t escape; the teenage mistakes magnified a million times; the judgments that still pierce his skin, poreless as it may be. Best, though, are the jaunty “Love Yourself,” possibly the world’s first campfire-folk dis track, and the airy, dubsteppy “The Feeling,” assisted by alt-pop songstress Halsey.
1D’s fifth album has already yielded two of its own massive singles: the spit-polished stompers “Drag Me Down” and “Perfect.” They’re also two of the least interesting songs here; either one could easily belong to any boy band of the past 20 years. What’s less expected is the group’s knack for crafting enormously hooky tributes to musical eras more familiar to their fans’ parents: the choogling Steely Dan–meets–Fleetwood Mac yacht rock of “What a Feeling”; the pretty, Beatles-y ballads “Olivia” and “I Want to Write You a Song”; “Walking in the Wind,” which flirts with Graceland-era Paul Simon before bursting into a big-sky chorus. The lyrics, with a few subtly naughty exceptions, are still largely crafted for listeners whose idea of romance is a Disney prince—dashing, devoted, and safely two-dimensional. Unlike Bieber, One Direction don’t seem ready yet to explore their own more adult voices. Or maybe they’re just saving it for their solo records. Purpose: B+ Made in the A.M.: B