Sunday, January 27, 2019

album review: 'dna' by backstreet boys

So here's a difficult question: what does a Backstreet Boys album sound like in 2019?

Here's a better question: what should a Backstreet Boys album sound like 2019? Because while I'd argue there might be a market for the long-running boy band to deliver a project that imitates the sound of what made them famous twenty years ago, the group has always striven to update their sound with the times, from the pop rock flourishes on their underrated mid-2000s output to the Red-One-infused club boom pivot of 2009 to the embrace of broader, sunnier textures in 2013 for In A World Like This, of which I defended in one of my first ever reviews because it gave all of them the space to really exercise their harmonies. Yeah, there were some dull acoustic moments, but big flashy pop has always been a good fit for them and I really enjoyed that album - hell, a song from it even made my list of the best songs of 2013!

But in 2019... look, pop music is not really in a healthy place, and I wasn't at all convinced the Backstreet Boys would be able to persist amidst trap beats and an increased unnecessary reliance on Autotune - I hadn't been a fan of 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' for succumbing to those cliches, and I had no reason to believe this new album wouldn't face similar issues. And again, this is coming from a fan who has seen them live twice and could compile a healthy list of favourites from all of their albums... but I call it like I see it. especially when I saw their list of co-writers and producers. But hey, I had to hope, right, so what did we get off of DNA?

So here's the good news: it's good - actually, a bit better than I expected it would be, especially given the current state of modern pop and how much I was not on-board with 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart'. Now I'd definitely struggle to put it among the upper tier of Backstreet Boys albums - even when it comes to post-peak albums, I wouldn't say it's got cuts that match the best of Never Gone or In A World Like This - but it's not their worst and does show how the band has the potential to exist in a modern form in 2019, even if it's a question how much they've actually matured or evolved.

But let's start by circling back to what a Backstreet Boys album should sound like in 2019, because at least for me, it's pretty straightforward: clean, well-arranged harmonies, production that allows organic swell that doesn't try to be trendy for its own sake - a factor that did serious damage to This Is Us a decade ago, and hopefully some real hooks. Hell, I didn't even have much in the way of expectations surrounding songwriting, mostly because neither the guys nor Max Martin have a single writing credit on any songs here! So while it might be very easy to paint my pleasant surprise as benefiting from low expectations... well, of course it is, but that's not to discount some genuinely good pop and even R&B-leaning songs here, mostly when the Backstreet Boys narrow in on their harmonies and sharper grooves. And while 'Breathe' is easily the best distillation of this - a stripped-back near a capella cut that could have been given to Boyz II Men, I was surprised how nicely the sharp, trap-inflected gloss complimented the harmonies on 'Chateau' or the more bare-bones muffled keys and whirring melodic fragments of 'Is It Just Me'. Hell, while I was mostly ambivalent to the more forceful hook of 'Chances' at first, it has grown on me - sure as hell did more than the pop country flirtations like the 'Die A Happy Man' ripoff of 'No Place' and the Dustin Lynch-cowrite 'Just Like You Like It' - I don't know how A.J. talked the rest of the group into releasing those especially given his own disastrous attempt to 'disrupt' mainstream country, but they sure as hell don't work here.

But this does raise the larger question of the moments where the Backstreet Boys did experiment and where I run into a pretty significant quandary with this album - because if you're familiar with this group as early as Black & Blue, they were stepping outside of the sound that broke them in the late 90s, and where they hit their balance was between their distinctive presence and other styles. And while the best moments here do showcase that balance, those are sadly in the minority, and it's hard not to look at a bunch of songs here as straying a little too far from what works. I've already mentioned the pop-country moments, but the most glaring cuts are 'New Love' that sounds like a badly mixed Charlie Puth imitation with the weird flute and bass combination and then followed by 'Passionate', where the cowriting credit from Andy Grammer makes sense for how flimsy and garish the horns feel, and the weirdly jaunty closing cut 'OK' is not far behind! And what feels weird is the attempt to ramp up the sex appeal with these grooves - a very ending-of-N'Sync sort of move in principle, but honestly not delivered with enough tightness, which was the biggest factor in the Backstreet Boys delivering any convincing swagger, not helped by vocal arrangements that aren't consistently showcasing their strengths. And this is where I have to bring up the songwriting, because even with low expectations here songs like 'New Love' and 'Passionate' are on the wrong side of the 'assertive vs. forceful' divide, and the grooves are just nowhere tight enough to back it up!

Now granted, nobody is coming to the Backstreet Boys for songwriting, and even the best songs here like 'Breathe' and 'Chateau' and 'Is It Just Me', all in states of love lost and trying to get it back, they're simple pop songs that are relying way harder on presentation than any distinctive detail. And this is the second big issue with this album: it's claiming to be a step towards maturity or at the very least more sexuality - and I get why, given they're decades past their heyday - but with that should come wisdom or some degree of sophistication, and while a few songs might capture in delivery, it doesn't come through in the lyrics. 'Nobody Else' can feel really clingy, 'OK' feels chipper to the point of naivete, 'The Way It Was' feels more desperate than it should, and what's worse it's that it's not sold with the bombastic melodrama that redeemed the band at their best. And that's one reason while I might have had lower expectations based on their lack of writing credits, the larger issue is how these songs could be given to a half dozen other pop stars and they don't really feel like Backstreet Boys songs or that are reflective of their experience now, a solid twenty years after Millennium. Seriously, even with the vocal arrangements you could give half of these songs to other pop acts and most people couldn't tell the difference!

So as a whole... look, I'll say it again, I'm a Backstreet Boys fan and I honestly wanted to give this a ton of credit, but the more listens I gave it the less it felt distinctive or potent, especially compared to what they've delivered before. That's not saying there aren't a couple great songs that could stand among their best, but not enough to make a cohesive project beyond those moments, even with the benefit of lower expectations. And its worst, this album can feel really anonymous, and for a group who rely on their vocal personality, that's the biggest factor holding this back from being better. So for me, it's a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation to check out a few cuts - I'd go with 'Breathe', 'Chateau', and 'Is It Just Me', maybe 'Chances' too - but other than that, tell me when they start putting their own compositions up. They've done it before, I've got faith they can do it again, and I'll come back for that.

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