Throughout Backstreet Boys’ career, the group members have weathered rehab, label and management issues, member departures, and changing trends. And yet 20 years later, the quintet is still intact and seemingly stronger than ever, buoyed by creative endeavors to reach loyal fans (a tour with New Kids On The Block, Backstreet Boys cruises, Old Navy commercials, etc.). As part of a 20th-anniversary celebration, the group is now free from the major-label system and self-releasing a new album (their first with Kevin Richardson since 2005’s Never Gone), In A World Like This.
As with the last few records, this release freshens up the group’s soulful sound with modern production touches and reference points. On In A World Like This, these tend to be elements familiar to the adult contemporary-skewing side of Top 40 radio: lightweight keyboard whooshes coupled with club-ready tempos (“Permanent Stain”), digital beats (the piano-aided “One Phone Call”) or generic “whoa-oh” vocals (“Make Believe”). The problem is, these contemporary sonic elements don’t suit the Backstreet Boys’ strengths—in fact, the album’s slick production makes the vocal melodies and harmonies sound disappointingly generic.
As a result, the group’s musical personality feels somewhat whitewashed; many of In A World Like This’ songs are indistinguishable from ones by OneRepublic, The Wanted, or The Script. (Meanwhile, the cringeworthy “Feels Like Home”—a twangy ode to Southern living, the touring life, and global partying hotspots—even comes uncomfortably close to the vapid side of country-pop crossover.) Several bouts of awkward lyrics also don’t help things: The surging electropop tune “Love Somebody” contains the inimitable couplet, “You’re the reason that caveman drew on the wall / The reason why after every summer we fall.”
What’s frustrating is that Backstreet Boys are entirely capable of evolving their sound. The dramatic orchestras, chords, and vocal acrobatics on 2005’s “Incomplete” were compelling, while 2009’s This Is Us navigated sound-refreshers (hip-hop, Auto-Tune, edgy post-Timberlake pop) rather deftly, even without Richardson. And when In A World Like This focuses on the band’s strong points, it succeeds. The title track (and lead single) is a memorable Max Martin composition with lush vocals and choruses; the giant hooks of “Show ’Em (What You’re Made Of)” conjure the group’s glory days; “Breathe” is a syrupy romantic ballad; and “Try” is an acoustic-soul/R&B jam with heavenly multi-part harmonies. As these songs prove, fewer gimmicks and more of an emphasis on timeless influences would’ve made In A World Like This more successful.