It’s been ten years since “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) hit U.S. airwaves, and the faces of a new generation of heartthrobs took over MTV. The music scene changed with the Backstreet Boys leading a pack of “boy bands” into the new millennium. Once again, music has evolved, and album sales continue to decrease. Boy bands are no more, but hip-hop, punk, and country are strong in the game. The only remnants of that past wave of pop is laced over with heavy dance/R&B/Hip-Hop via Justin Timberlake, and Mission: Man Band, a failing reality series of mix-matched has-beens called Sure Shot, is a sure flop.
With the dust settling over the years, the Backstreet Boys remain on top of their game still. Since the deflation of pop music in 2002, which is credited to squeaky-clean images gone bad, mixed with the inability to stick together, the Backstreet Boys have managed to keep the ball rolling. “We’ve always stressed quality versus quantity when it comes to our career,” Brian Littrell, 32, explains in a recent press conference. “I think that’s what it’s attributed to, the music, and the loyal fans that we’ve had, and also the passion that we all have. The Backstreet Boys have never been about one particular guy. It’s always about a team. I think that’s what’s kept us together for this long.”
Though in the early 2000s, the group was somewhat absent after their greatest hits album was released, they never wavered, and had a strong comeback in 2005 with Never Gone debuting at #3 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. The album was a departure from their previous recordings like Millennium and Black & Blue, which are considered some of the greatest pop records of this generation. Never Gone tugged on the pop-rock strings a bit, and was received well. However, two years later, the group is gearing up to release Unbreakable, which is a throwback to BSB’s “classic” sound, yet brings in new elements as well. “We really wanted to find the sound that we’re really known for,” says AJ McLean, 29, “But kind of modernize it, and update it, and try to be trendsetters again, but also timeless.” The Backstreet Boys achieved just that!
Unbreakable hits stores October 30th, and the first single, “Inconsolable” has already been creeping up the Top 40 charts. One of the obvious differences on the latest CD is the missing bass voice of Kevin Richardson, 36. He approached his band mates before they began recording, and decided he wanted to pursue other interests, mainly becoming a father. Richardson’s wife gave birth to son, Mason in July. Turning their usual five-part harmony into four appeared smooth, now leaving room for high-note hitter, Howie Dorough, 34, to gain more leads. “When making this record, we consciously had to make a decision on how we were going to do this with just the four of us and not feel like [people] were missing something.” Dorough explains. “I think we actually were able to really do that.” He credit’s the team of writers and producers like Dan Mukala, John Shanks, and Billy Man, who the group worked with on the album, as well as the group writing themselves.
According to McLean, the Backstreet Boys “A&Red” the album themselves, and worked on the project for a year and a half, which left them with thirty-five songs to play with. Of the thirty-five, fourteen made the cut, with a few bonus tracks thrown in for Wal-mart and special editions. Considering themselves a visual group, BSB thought of how their music would play out onstage. “One of the things that we really strived for on this new record,” Begins McLean, “is to have those up tempos again so we can dance, and we can perform and not just sit up there on stools and look like a bunch of old farts.”
When asked about the Boys’ vocal progression over the years, Nick Carter, 27, was eager to speak up. “I’m going through my third puberty.” Carter jokes. “I feel like I’ve gotten better. I feel like I don’t sound like an album from the Chipmunks anymore. I’m very happy where I’m heading vocally.“ AJ McLean added on, “I think we’re all the strongest that we’ve ever been. I think we’re all blending really well together; it’s just a really tight sound amongst us four now.” McLean says. “But also for me, I think my voice has definitely changed every since I got sober, because, you know, drinking and partying and doing all those things definitely affects not only your voice but your morale and all of that. I’m at the top of my game. I think we all are.”
While reading the album credits, one name will come as a surprise: former competitor/‘N Sync member, JC Chasez. McLean and Chasez penned “Treat Me Right” together; one of Unbreakable’s more unique sounding songs. “Writing with JC was actually a really, really interesting process.” Says McLean. “He really understands the harmonies, the melodies, and the complex simplicity [of what we do as a group]. He’s a very talented writer; he’s a very talented musician, as well as artist. I would hope that we could work with him again.“
While “Inconsolable” is reminiscent of “I Want It That Way”, don’t be fooled, Unbreakable has a lot more to offer than recycled hits. Though “Helpless When She Smiles” and “You Can Let Go” blends mostly old with a bit of new, “Panic”, “One In A Million”, and “Treat Me Right” turn a different corner with an interesting sound, great lyrics, and, a refreshing look into the future of the Backstreet Boys. “Everything But Mine” will get stuck in your head without even realizing it, while “Any Other Way” will have you singing along, and tapping your feet when you’re listening to your i-Pod. Rounding out the album are “Trouble Is”, “Love Will Keep You Up All Night”, and “Unmistakable”, which are mid-tempo love songs, a style the band has honed over the past fifteen years.
The final track on Unbreakable is “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon”, a ballad written by the Backstreet Boys with Dan Mukala and Billy Mann. The “mouthful” of a title, as Littrell puts it, appears to be one of the band‘s favorites off the album. Unbreakable will be something for everyone, and may surprise those anti-pop critics. Generations from grandmothers to children can still enjoy the Backstreet Boys, and looks like they will for a long time to come. Music needs an artist like this right now.
After promoting the album, the group is planning an extensive world tour, expecting to hit Asia, Europe, South America, and finally North America. The Boys are grateful to their loyal fans around the world saying it provides them with “good problems”, since they have so many places to perform. What can audiences expect this time around from a Backstreet show? More dancing!
Since the Never Gone album didn’t allow too much room for choreography, BSB want to bring the element back in again. The Boys even have new choreographers, Charm & Caitlin, who are young and fresh at nineteen and twenty-years-old. “We just have to get through the soreness first before we can hopefully look good.” Says Littrell. AJ even admits to falling during rehearsal recently due to a bad knee. “We’re just excited to be dancing again,” McLean explains. “It’s just fun again–it’s just fun to be up there moving and dancing and just–everybody feels really good about it.” Besides dancing, Nick hinted around at a big production with pyro and trampolines, which the other Boys weren’t too sure about. “These are just things we’re thinking about.” Nick corrected. “Our minds are wide open for the idea of something extravagant, and big and entertaining.”
In 2008, the Boys also plan to continue on with their solo albums as well. Carter is working on a follow-up to his 2002 rock-fused album, while Littrell is working on a sophomore album to his successful Christian CD last year. Both Dorough and McLean have been recording for their first shot at a solo career. “Each of our [solo records] are actually kind of different directions, which is kind of cool,” Dorough explains, “Because that’s the chemistry of each of us that comes together and makes the Backstreet Boys who we are. We can all be out there and not be competing with each other.” Until then, it’s all about the Backstreet Boys as a group, who continue to strive for longevity, which in the ever-changing music industry is becoming more difficult. “There’s so many artists now, young and new, up and coming artists that are more or less working a song.” Discusses Littrell. “They have one song or two songs and they don’t really get that opportunity to build a long career. In the time that we were so, so very successful in the late ‘90s, mid to late ‘90s, early 2000, is that that’s what people were looking for that integrity and that staying power. And it was a blessing.”
And blessed the Backstreet Boys are. With the ability to stay true to their sound, yet re-invent it album after album, it’s no wonder they’re the real “Man Band”, and that’s the only reality out there. Unbreakable is deserving of not only the Backstreet Boys’ loyal fans, but a new generation of music lovers. Hopefully critics, cynics, and the close-minded alike will be pleasantly surprised.