The Backstreet Boys are now 20 years old. You read it right, 20 years old. And outside of the reunification of 98 Degrees, Christina Aguilera's attempts to stay relevant on radio and technically Justin Timberlake, BSB has pretty much outlasted almost every major pop player in that time span. From their still groundbreaking in sales Millennium (no one has even come close to breaking that record, not even Taylor Swift, One Direction or 50 Cent) to their musical changeups of the 2000s, the reunified fivesome have stuck around for this long by sticking to their base and adding a little dash of this and that to stay above the fray.
But after 2009's dud (this reviewer still remains in a small minority) This Is Us, the question became whether or not they had simply lost their way in their attempt to stay fresh and modern? And their answer?
In comes their new album and their first with founding member Kevin Richardson back in the fold. And they answer it by not trying to make that wholesale change they attempted on This Is Us and revert back to what generallyis a happy medium between Never Gone (their previous last w/Richardson on board) and Unbreakable (their first post-Richardson effort) with a few tweaks added here and there.
Opening track "In a World Like This" immediately answers that very question. The lyrics behind the song are refreshingly catchy, almost a lyrical ode (as far as style goes) to their first big hit "I Want It That Way." Musically, the arrangement strikes an excellent balance of sounds from their preceding trio of albums with an acoustic guitar-driven opening seguing into a drum-driven catchy beat reminscent of the only few tracks that worked on This Is Us, "Straight Through my Heart."
"Permanent Stain" is an oddly well done combination of BSB's signature sound combined with a OneRepublic/Florence and the Machine/Mumford & Sons flair. Cannot explain how it works, but that it works. The refrain is wonderfully awesome with that cacophony of sound. It is a surprise that Florence Welch and Ryan Tedder did not help create this piece!
"Breathe" combines their vintage silky-smooth harmonies and signature trade-offs
and set it against an equally silky, touch of trippy, easygoing vibe.
"Madeleine" puts the Boys (or Men) into stripped down territory with the acoustic guitars, glockenspiel, hand clappers and shakers, which allows their voices and harmonies to take center stage. And it should be, the song is one that is uplifting and brings a message of anti-bullying, particularly in the LGBT community; it is said the song is a dedication to a particular fan who committed suicide, a victim of cruel bullying.
"Show 'Em (What You're Made Of)" seems to have generated some sort of buzz with our fellow critics, who may have just clearly missed the point, or not simply listen to the track. Much like the final track of Millennium was an ode to their mothers, this one is a general ode and nod to their children (except Nick, who has none right now). Do they come off a bit too strong or even too preachy as opposed to the understated but powerful preachiness in previous track "Madeleine?" Maybe, but that is entirely up for interpretation.
After the rather clunky "Make Believe," due to the song trying way too hard to compete with younger contemporaries that could pull this off (dare we say the Biebs?) in execution, musicianship and overall feel, the second half of the album kicks off with the wonderfully arranged and executed "Try." The song makes the fivesome really return to their harmonizing, soulful roots and then acknowledge their ages by getting very old school here; there's an almost Jackson Five/The Temptations feel to the piece. AJ really shines in this one...a must-listen.
If you are familiar with the stylings of Canadian-American singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka, his fingerprints are all over the next track, titled "Trust Me." And it is quite fitting that Howie D. opens this whimsical and soulful track, as Justin's brother George is attached to Howie.
"Love Somebody" gets the fivesome off the tracks a bit again...like the uneven "Make Believe," they try their hand again at the younger audience, this time going after the One Direction/Big Time Rush crowd. And once again, given their ages and their career points, it comes off as somewhat clunky and unnecessary.
"One Phone Call" gets a bit metaphorically dark as it spins a story of a man in prison who decides to make his one phone call to his girl who refuses to pick up the phone, so he leaves a nearly four-minute voicemail. This is going to be one of those songs that you either will love, hate or just simply find it kind of strange. This reviewer is in the latter.
Critics seemed to not like "Feels Like Home" but you know what? Considering where their careers have been and where pop music has gone since their glory days of 1999-2001, the Backstreet Boys deserve to poke fun at not only themselves (like in the ending of "This Is The End" or when they took potshots at everyone on Letterman), but also the current state of pop music. "Feels Like Home" feels like their own self-deprecating parody at modern pop music while somehow paying homage to their worldwide fanbase. It's a brilliant stroke of genius.
The album ends with the sing-along friendly "Soldier," certainly to get you to remember the lyrics in the refrain after two or three listens.
The Backstreet Boys in this album has generally found their zone that they can comfortably live in for what perhaps will be the rest of their careers. Outside of a couple tracks that strayed a bit off the reservation, In A World Like This pretty much hits every single sound and beat that has defined BSB for 20 years, there's something in it for every line of Backstreet fan, from those who came aboard during their glory years, the ones who jumped aboard late in 2005, to the ones who were with them when they were starting at pet stores, car dealerships, school parking lots and then in Europe and Asia. In a way, you can safely say that Backstreet's back...ALRIGHT!