Tuesday, July 30, 2013

album review: 'in a world like this' by the backstreet boys

I have been a fan of the Backstreet Boys for almost fifteen years.

They weren't just a band I grew up with, they were the very first band of which I was ever a hardcore fan. I own physical copies of all of their albums. I've sung Backstreet Boys songs in karaoke and in talent shows. I can play their music on the piano. I've seen them live, and I'll be seeing them again in less than a week. They are the quintessential late 90s boy band and they have earned their place in popular culture, and I'm proud to call myself a fan.

...and because I said all of this, some of you will immediately disqualify any review I give henceforth as either the gushing of an admirer or the nitpicking of a displeased fanboy. You'll probably say that there's no way I could possibly be impartial when it comes to this band, and thus my review is invalid because of some nebulous 'bias'. Now I could go on for hours how this disqualification is absolutely asinine (in fact, I already did), but I find myself pausing a little more when I consider my love of the Backstreet Boys. Is it possible that since this band was part of my childhood, I view their material with rose-coloured nostalgia? Am I giving too much credit to a pop act, particularly given my well-documented tendency of reading too much into things?

Well, maybe, but then again, I haven't exactly disabled my critical faculties when reflecting on The Backstreet Boys, and the band's material isn't immune from honest analysis or criticism. For example, I don't have particularly kind words for The Backstreet Boys' first album, most of which is catering to the Europop bandwagon and lacks significant personality. They would iron some of the kinks out before Backstreet's Back, but there are still major duds on that album. In fact, come to think of it, I would argue that all of their albums had at least one song that didn't work in the slightest (Millennium comes the closest to consistent excellence, but to me, 'It's Gotta Be You' just didn't come together). And while I'll defend their 2005 comeback album Never Gone more than most (seriously, between 'Siberia', 'Forces of Nature', 'Lose It All', and 'I Still...', that album deserves way more credit than it gets), I don't have many kind words to say about the two albums they made without Kevin Richardson in 2007 and 2009. I wouldn't call them precisely bad (okay, most of This Is Us is pretty awful), but considering the heights of which they were capable, they were disappointments. And obviously the less said about that New Kids On The Block experiment, the better.

But going back through their discography in preparation for this review, I was reminded of all the reasons I fell in love with this band in the first place. In my review of The Brilliancy EP, I talked about the three factors required to make good pop music: solid, catchy instrumentation/production (plus a hook); good lyrics/vocal delivery; and sincerity. And while The Backstreet Boys have definitely slipped up more than a few times with the first two factors, they've never become cynical or pandering or showed anything less than complete sincerity. What other band would make 'Larger Than Life', one of the biggest hits of their career, an explicit love letter to their fans? In comparison to an act like N'Sync (yeah, I'm going here, deal with it), the Backstreet Boys sounded looser and ever so slightly more organic (particularly on Millennium, Never Gone, and Unbreakable). Yes, they were occasionally hyperbolic and yes, they were occasionally jokey and cheesy, but they were always willing to include themselves as part of the joke and just run with it. If you were laughing, rest assured they were laughing with you, and yet you could tell there was genuine emotion in their delivery. People respond well to that sort of sincerity, and it's no surprise that over a decade after their heyday, there are still hardcore Backstreet Boys fans (myself included).

So when I heard they were released a new album this year, I had a moment of elation that was very quickly drowned out by some real concerns. For starters, they're not getting any younger, and if This Is Us taught the world anything, it was that modern production didn't always fit well with The Backstreet Boys (to say nothing of autotune, which didn't fit at all). And yes, it was awesome that Kevin was back, but would they manage to have that flair and personality over fifteen years into their careers, that unique presence to stand up against their personality-bereft and far less talented peers in One Direction? And as much as I really, really wanted this album to be great, I knew that the Backstreet Boys' last consistently good album came out in 2005. 

So how does In A World Like This fare?

Youtube review after the jump



Well, to be completely honest, I'm not really sure. While I definitely wouldn't call it the best of The Backstreet Boys' considerable output, I wouldn't hesitate to call it one of their better albums in a long time, not to mention a pretty damn good album all by itself. But what's most perturbing about the album are the elements that work and those that don't, because they reflect something very interesting about the album's artistic direction that I don't think anyone expected.

To begin, let me say that all of the elements that made The Backstreet Boys a great pop act are still here. With Kevin's return to the band, his raspy baritone providing a firm foundation for their harmonies, The Backstreet Boys' vocal performances have never sounded better. One of the great distinguishing factors of the band was that every member could be immediately recognized by their voice alone, and this element has only been enhanced as their voices have matured. The biggest improvements here come from Nick Carter, as he still proves able to nail those impossible high notes without the whininess that typically defined his earlier delivery. 

And like always, the lyrics have a slick classy professionalism that reflects star songwriters at their creative peak. What's interesting is that the contributions by the individual members of The Backstreet Boys are only getting stronger, with the standouts being the writing contributions from Nick Carter (again) and Howie Dorough. And at several points throughout the album, I earnestly believed that if the Backstreet Boys wanted to ditch Max Martin and the rest of the professional songwriters altogether, they could probably put together a fairly solid album on their own.

As for thematic elements or a narrative throughline... well, there certainly isn't much of that, but I didn't really expect one. The Backstreet Boys have always been a singles act, and asking for underlying themes in their material is reaching, even for me. If I was going to pinpoint one concept, it'd be the fact that the Backstreet Boys will always be there for their fans and keep delivering the same type of music: cheesy, heartfelt, often over-the-top, and overwhelmingly sincere.

But I've avoided the most interesting element of In A World Like This thus far, and that is the changes and evolution in instrumentation. Now, in the past, The Backstreet Boys' attempts to modernize with the pop music scene have been awkward at best. In the R&B boom of the early 2000s, they made some efforts to sound a little 'tougher' on Black & Blue (to mixed results), and with similarly with the more acoustric pop rock of the mid-2000s. They encountered significantly less success when they tried to emulate the opening salvos of the club boom in 2009, mostly because that scene was a bit too sleazy and less earnest, which made the Backstreet Boys' straightforward honesty look distinctly dorky.

But now it's 2013, the club boom has faded and been replaced by pounding, over-the-top EDM-inspired music. They have dance beats, they have soaring choruses, they are trying to sound as large and as 'epic' as possible. Now, I've had mixed opinions about most of these acts, mostly because (as I described in my Charli XCX review) their tendencies are towards underwritten songs, tonal dissonance between delivery and subject matter, and a lack of restraint on the part of the DJs, and thus I was justifiably skeptical when I heard the first hints of 'big beat' EDM creeping onto this album.

But then I was blown out of the water, because The Backstreet Boys' embrace of EDM-inspired instrumentation completely fits. There's little-to-no tonal dissonance because The Backstreet Boys are selling their delivery with complete sincerity and unity of vision (without dumbing down their lyrics, I might add), and they all have strong enough voices as a group to keep any producers from blowing them off the stage. More importantly, like the EDM I actually like, they tend to ground their beats in mostly organic instrumentation. I was reminded less of David Guetta or Calvin Harris, but instead Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto - and honestly, The Backstreet Boys are a much better fit for that sort of music rather than Coldplay ever was. And really, the moments where the Backstreet Boys cut loose with these sorts of beats are easily the high points of the album, with 'In A World Like This' (an entire song about how they wished musicians were more sincere and heartfelt), 'Permanent Stain', 'Show 'Em (What You're Made Of)', 'One Phone Call' and 'Make Believe'.

Now here's the interesting part: Kevin said in an interview that he would have preferred a producer named Martin Terefe have worked on the entire album (in comparison to the four or five other guys they brought in). I did a bit of investigation into what Terefe has produced in the past, and while I'm not unimpressed, I'm certainly not blown away. What's more interesting, however, is the fact that all of the tracks that Terefe produced on In A World Like This are the least engaging, mostly because they're slower, acoustic love songs that never really stick the landing (mostly due to some occasional clumsy lyrics and bland instrumentation). In fact, they were very reminiscent of early Backstreet Boys material (albeit with more acoustic guitar), so I'm not entirely surprised Kevin was a fan of Terefe.

But here's my point: I understand that the Backstreet Boys aren't exactly trying to innovate at this point in their discography (hell, Nick confirmed this in an interview prior to the album's release), but going back to mine the earlier material isn't exactly a good step for the band. Yeah, none of these acoustic songs are bad, per se, but if they're looking to emulate the music they wrote in the past, this material just doesn't match up in the same way. The Backstreet Boys experimenting with epic-sounding EDM, that's new and fresh, but going back to the material they did well in the late 90s just strikes me as the wrong direction because we've heard it all before, and nothing on In A World Like This is going to unseat the great songs the Backstreet Boys made in this style ten years ago. Once again, Terefe's songs aren't bad, but they lack a certain presence that makes them stand out, particularly against the more energetic tracks. And not only does it hurt the album's flow, spacing the four slower, blander songs throughout the album ('Breathe', 'Madeleine', 'Try', and 'Trust Me'), but they also serve as reminders that The Backstreet Boys have done this material better elsewhere. And frankly, when they are experimenting with a modern pop sound - an experimentation that paid off better for them than I think anyone could have expected - it's a serious 'come-down' to listen to this sort of material.

Yet all of that said, I still dug the hell out of In A World Like This. I don't think it's quite as solid all around as it could have been (and, incidentally, not as solid as The Brilliancy EP), but it's definitely worth your time and if, by some miracle, the singles get mainstream airplay, I'd be more than happy to see the Backstreet Boys get a second (third?) wind.

They might be older, but as long as there'll be music they'll be coming back again - and I'm happy to see them.

2 comments:

  1. I follow your YouTube channel and it's great! I was hoping you could go back and review some older albums in your free time. I know you've mentioned RED by Taylor Swift and I was hoping you could expand on your opinion. Also, #3 by The Script which came out last year as well. Maybe some of the Grammy nominations for album of the year from the past year would be good ideas as well...

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