How exactly does a boy band grow up? Backstreet Boys has been trying for years. They stopped dancing in every video. Solo albums were released. For several albums, the group steered away from their founding (and former manager Lou Pearlman‘s) formula, a “New Kids on the Block look with a Boyz II Men sound.” They tried singing solely to live instrumentation (2005′s Never Gone), then without pop wizards Max Martin and Kristian Lundin (2007′s Unbreakable) and went sans their oldest member Kevin Richardson on two albums (Unbreakable and This Is Us). Repeatedly, they stressed that they weren’t a “boy band,” but rather, a “male vocal harmony group.”
But it’s tough for Backstreet to grow up when they reunited only to be compared with younger boy bands — “You were One Direction big,” one reporter actually said — or when the minds behind This Is The End request a surprise cameo that revolves around the band’s 15-year-old hit, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” How can BSB grow up when they just wrapped a reunion tour with New Kids on the Block? In their new album In A World Like This, out today, , Backstreet Boys realized that their attempts to act older, or even “sexual” (thanks, Nick Carter) have often felt forced. For the first time in 13 years, they aren’t trying so hard.
Backstreet helped write eight of the record’s 12 tracks, often with Swedish producer Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, James Morrison). Electric and acoustic guitars, a piano and the occasional string or horn section loosely crowd around BSB during intimate moments, even though all the arrangements seem to cave once the boys break for the arenas: The rollicking “Permanent Stain” soars like an IMAX version of something from Mumford & Sons‘ Sigh No More. Meanwhile, the sunny title track proves itself to be BSB’s best follow-up to “I Want It That Way;” each time that peppy beat gives way to the chorus, the song bursts open.
In a World Like This makes other efforts to show how Backstreet can act its age, like acoustic ditties (“Madeleine”) or even more stadium-sized encouragement, like “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)”. But they’re not always mature — sometimes World is stupidly silly, giddy at others or relaxed overall: Love, according to the sugary “Love Somebody,” is to find her purple jeans adorable and call her the reason why cavemen drew on the wall. BSB’s global fanbase, at least in “Feels Like Home,” inspires AJ McLean to fumble through a country drawl as he sings, “Rock out in Bangkok until the party don’t stop.” Yup.
It’s as if BSB is winking directly at closet fans, knowing that they face an audience who will never imagine the group as full-fledged adults, not with still-vivid and understandably embarrassing memories of those teasing jet-setters in the “I Want It That Way” video, or their pas de deux with chairs from “As Long As You Love Me” (the biggest difference between Backstreet and Beastie Boys, did you know?) or constipated faces from “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” The group’s grown up, but it’s also refusing to deny their past. Backstreet’s back, alright.
Idolator Score: 4/5
— Christina Lee