The Backstreet Boys will forever be one of two in a spirited debate on who was the better of the two undeniable titans of teen-pop in the late 1990s and the early 2000s: them or ‘Nsync. While ‘NSync disbanded soon after album number three (which would seem to give the Backstreet Boys the crown right away for staying power) the Backstreet Boys still faltered some after the diamond-selling juggernaut that was Millennium. The cracks in the pop machine that was behind their best hits were starting to show with the debut single off Black and Blue. That track rode an identical cadence as their biggest hit (and arguably most well crafted) single ever “I Want It That Way”. Sure, the notes were different, but it was painfully obvious, and this was just one of many things going on in the teen pop world at the time that spelled the end of the group’s dominance. They tried to strike again as “Backstreet Men” with the adult-contemporary-glossed schlock of Never Gone, declared themselves Unbreakable (an album which refreshingly showed more writing credits from the BSB themselves, instead of just a who’s who of of-the-moment pop producers) when they were reduced to a foursome. After that, most would say they found their stride again on the dancier, less schmaltzy This Is Us. So, with Kevin Richardson’s return, and a departure from Jive, just what do the Backstreet Boys sound like in 2013 on In a World Like This?
The opening title track and lead single manages a trade-off from This Is Us and Unbreakable territory. The beat is insistent and catchy, but not run-away-with-itself fast, and the melody is pure Backstreet ear candy. Things slide into a worked-in, easygoing groove for the first half. Sparse, un-cluttered tracks like “Madeleine” allow their voices to break out from the mix. Giving the practiced, smooth-as-butter harmonies a chance to shine through over the music is something that didn’t happen as much on This Is Us. It’s not that they weren’t there, just that they were a bit too buried under the stuttering of-the-moment EDM stabs of the day. “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)” comes across as Backstreet Boys gone OneRepublic—truly, a quick scan of the writing credits and it’s surprising not to see Ryan Tedder’s name in the mix. And it’s also refreshing to see not one, but two of the Backstreet Boys themselves listed there. They may not always write the most clever lyrics, but they manage to do as well or better than those who used to be the sole scribes for their albums. They enjoy trying on a few new hats this time out—a good idea in theory, but in practice, it makes “Try” sound like the leftovers that Sheryl Crow and Fleetwood Mac never recorded. That said, credit to the Backstreet Boys for trying to branch out a little from their basic template.
Their basic template is something they dip into with results that can be a bit on the cheesy side, and yet still show some growth. “One Phone Call” will remind listeners of how the Backstreet Boys once sang about the “call that changed my destiny” on earlier hit “The Call”, only this time it isn’t a saucy story of unfaithful men on the hunt. This time, it’s a “Baby please come home” plea, one that doesn’t quite resonate as well as it might have in years long gone by (Several of the members are married men with children, after all.) Lovelorn techno-ballads like “Permanent Stain” also don’t seem to fit quite that well with who they are now as people. Even so, it’s a passable dance-pop tune crossed with their classic balladry - nothing amazing, but catchy enough to get by on.
“Feels Like Home” is a song that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Is it more OneRepublic-aping stomp-and-groove, is it a city-name-checking routine that recalls Huey Lewis & The News “Heart of rock and roll”, is it an auto-tuned modern-country-pop aping mess? It’s a bit too all over the place, but it fits the style that Kevin Richardson has hinted at in interviews - that they were trying to be more authentic with this album. By this point in their careers they have been on enough world tours that a rousing celebration of those experiences would be appropriate. And even as they call out all the places they’ve been, this track still gives the listener a sense that they all still believe there’s no place like home. A little bit more of that bid for authenticity shows up on “Soldier”. This track makes a strong case for the group not needing to lean on Max Martin and other pop producers anywhere near as much as they once did. This confidence comes through as the album ends with “Light On”, forming a perfect trifecta of “boys are doin’ it for themselves” styled catchy pop to bring things to a close (it’s also one of the few moments where they stray closer to full-blown EDM pop mode.)
Free of Jive, and now truly on their own, and reunited with Richardson, the Backstreet Boys are definitely “boys” no longer. Here they continue to make a solid case for being able to stand on their own two feet. Yes, a close look at each song’s credits shows they still have help—and this album won’t set the world on fire like Millennium did—quite likely nothing they do again will. But for what they’ve become, it is definitely a step in the right direction. It took Backstreet Boys a few albums’ worth of growing pains (and two albums as a foursome) for them to settle into an easy, well-worn pop groove. So long as they continue to channel that groove, they will have a future in the music world.