There’s something dispiriting about the persistence of the Backstreet Boys, a “boy band” whose members should be well into their third midlife crises and fourth marriages, not their ninth studio album. (Average Backstreet Boy age: 37. Oldest member: 41.) A few years ago, I watched the group perform a brief set at a Z-100 Jingle Ball, plodding through decade-old dance steps for an indifferent crowd of teens who were waiting to see the Jonas Brothers. It was a grim spectacle. I looked at the Jumbotron, gazed into Nick Carter’s dreamy blue eyes, and saw nothing there: the dead vacant stare of a man who knew he was Too Old for This Shit.
But it’s 2013 and, as the poet said, Backstreet’s Back. The group marked its twentieth anniversary earlier this year; in July, they will release album No. 9. The lead single, “In a World Like This,” is out now, and guess what? It’s awfully good.
It’s a reunion with songwriter Max Martin, the wizardly Swedish songwriter and producer who last teamed with the Boys in 2000. Martin rose to prominence in the late-nineties teen-pop boom and has never fallen off; he remains the most reliable channeler of mallrat America’s teenage dreams. When cooking up hits for Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson and Pink, Martin can be irksome, falling back on formula— tuneful verses that erupt into walloping “rock” choruses — and tinpot provocation, like jamming the word fuckin’ into the chorus of an inspirational ballad. When he writes for Backstreet Boys, though, we get a mellower Martin: He chills out, turns down the guitars, and lets the tunes flow.
“In a World Like This,” co-written with Savan Kotecha and Martin’s old partner Christian Lundin, is a spiritual cousin of an earlier Martin-Lundin creation, the deathless, matchless “I Want It That Way.” The new single has a peppy synthetic beat that shifts to driving 4/4 in the chorus, a favorite Martinism; some nifty chord changes (I love the minor chords that creep into the chorus, giving it a melancholy downward tug); and enough big chewy melodic hooks to power three or four regular songs. As for the lyric: It may mean something in the original Swedish, but it’s absolute doggerel, merely a delivery system for the delectable music, and the better for it. I want my Backstreet Boys this way.
The question is: Who is this music for? Who is the Backstreet Boys’ fan base in 2013, at least two teen-pop generations after their prime? Today, the Jonas Brothers are passé; they’re releasing their own comeback album this year. Can the Backstreet Boys really expect to woo the tween worshippers of Justin Bieber and One Dimension and the Wanted, who, incidentally, parodied the Backstreet Boys in a recent video? Is there enough free-floating nineties nostalgia out there to buoy Carter & Co. back onto the charts? Or is the best-selling boy band of all time doomed, at this late date, to that unlikeliest, unsexiest fate: to be the cult favorites of poptimistic music writers — to be, God forbid, critical darlings?