It’s now safe to say the era of the “boy band” is experiencing a revival. With young whippersnappers like One Direction now dominating the charts on one end, and long-goners like New Kids On the Block trying to regain relevance on the other, a pop landscape once void of boy bands now finds a full array of testosterone-laden attempts to make the tween girls swoon.
It’s also safe to say it’s probably the worst time market-wise for Backstreet Boys to try stepping back on the scene with their first album since 2009, In a World Like This. True, they can’t help that it just happens to be their 20th anniversary as a band, and obviously something needed to be done to celebrate that (including bringing Kevin Richardson back to complete their original lineup). But there are just a million reasons why releasing a new record now would be met with the assumption that they are just the next last-era act to try and show up the young-‘uns. And given this particular writer’s known tongue-in-cheek predisposition against boy bands in general, the odds of my giving this record a good review can’t be good.
But here we are, beating the odds. I’m actually really impressed with this one. Backstreet Boys have played it very smart with their approach.
Here’s why I like this album. First and foremost—taken on its own merits, it’s just a very good pop album. Great hooks, tasteful arrangements, spot-on vocals (as usual), balanced track list. The opening title track “In a World Like This” grabs the listener’s attention with a solid, simple, sing-able hook; follow-up “Permanent Stain” continues the positive momentum, and “Breathe” slows the pace just a little with satisfying Bee-Gee-like harmonies. And so it goes, with additional high points supplied by the anthemic “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)” and the soulful ballad “Try,” among others. If you take this record out of its context and just listen to it, it’s very well produced and very well put together.
Second—to put it plainly, Backstreet Boys are acting their age. They are continuing their move away from younger dance-pop into adult contemporary, and they’re doing a very good job of it in the process. What’s more, it’s apparent that they aren’t trying to win over the next generation with trendy sonic gimmicks or current dance-pop themes; instead, this record takes dead aim at the generation that grew up loving Backstreet Boys, taking into account that these fans are now grown up, too. The end result is a highly tasteful, fully self-aware project that does justice to who the Backstreet Boys are as a band without begging for attention or coming across as desperate—and as a result, they are far more likely to win over some of those newer boy-band fans in the process, just because they are good at what they do.
The reality is that In a World Like This isn’t likely to generate any chart toppers of the caliber of “As Long As You Love Me” or “I Want It That Way.” But neither is that really necessary. This record is a great representation of who Backstreet Boys are today, while celebrating where they’ve come over the past 20 years. In a market once again flooded with competing boy bands, the smartest marketing strategy I can think of is not to compete at all, but just to be who you are, and let the music speak for itself. This is what these guys have done, and kudos to them for it.