Album Review: In a World Like This by Backstreet Boys
Average, Based on 8 Critics
AllMusic - 70 Based on rating 7/10
Usually, teen idols sprint away from the notion they're racking up the years, but the Backstreet Boys cannily decided to treat their 20th Anniversary as a very big deal, bringing Kevin Richardson back into the fold -- he left after 2005's Never -- for a tour, a documentary, and In a World Like This, the band's seventh album. Over the course of the back half of the 2000s, Backstreet Boys slowly accepted their advancing age, making a slow shift from dance-pop toward adult contemporary, and although it has a sharper gleam in its sheen, In a World Like This doesn't find BSB reversing this trend. Working primarily with longtime colleague Max Martin, Morgan Taylor Reid, and Martin Terefe, who has produced Jason Mraz, Ron Sexsmith, James Morrison, and KT Tunstall among other singer/songwriters, Backstreet Boys take sideways glances toward their past but focus on the present, happy to keep things smooth even when the rhythms get a little heated.
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.
"Backstreet's Back," bawled this swoony fivesome in 1997, when they were on their way to selling a record-breaking 130m records. Inevitably, Backstreet is Back again, with an album that illustrates the difficulty of bridging the gap between boyband and manband. Their last record, released 2009, recreated the dancepop of their golden era; this time, perhaps goaded by fear of looking foolish, they've abandoned the beats for mid-tempo adult pop.
After leaving their longtime label, Jive, and bringing departed member Kevin Richardson back into the fold for the first time since 2005's Never Gone, the Backstreet Boys are striking out as a newly independent “boy band” on their eighth studio album, In a World Like This. But with the exception of a slight shift from lyrics about babes to lyrics about babies, and a few songs better suited for the coffeehouse than the dance floor, not much else has really changed about the group's music. The album's Max Martin-produced opening title track is a decidedly limp single compared to the group's early hits, its cloying acoustic verses exploding into the forced bombast of the song's chorus.
The Backstreet Boys have long settled into a blandish adult contemporary milieu. Shame. They rocketed to fame with earworm dance hits (Get Down) and innovative chair choreography (As Long As You Love Me), and remained relevant through roughly four albums thanks to a couple of millennium-pop-defining anthems (I Want It That Way, The Call). Max Martin wrote the opening track on each of those early records, as he does here on their eighth.
"The clock on the wall, it reminds me of all the better times," sing the Backstreet Boys, now back to their original lineup. You'd be nostalgic too: In 1999, BSB scored huge hits; today, they're settling for an odd prison metaphor ("One Phone Call"). Given that they're out of the spotlight, they could've tried anything here, but settled for dentist-office-dull tracks stocked with wanna-be Ryan Tedder beats.
Backstreet's back! Except, it's not. Because really there's no going back to 1997, when Everybody (Backstreet's Back) was playing at every school disco across the land and Nick and Kevin and Howie and the other two were urging us all to rock our bah-dey, ye-eahh. The boys are now mostly approaching 40 – this eighth album marks the band's 20th anniversary – but they've retained that curiously nasal delivery that must have been focus-group tested on the ears of preteen girls.
On its latest release, “In a World Like This,” the vocal quintet Backstreet Boys continues to do what it has always done. (And it is indeed again a quintet with the return of Kevin Richardson.) That means plenty of polished, tuneful-enough, mid-tempo adult contemporary pop songs featuring exclamations to both girls and the world about the glorious power of love. Whether it’s literally providing oxygen like some kind of romantic scuba mask on “Breathe” or helping get the party started on Euro-disco throbbers like “Permanent Stain,” it is taking care of business.