|06-22-2022, 08:00 PM||#11 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
It's seldom I go for three album releases in a row, especially when the band in question has a lot more to choose from: I like to cherry-pick from their catalogue, to get a good idea of how/if they've developed as a band, or if their debut, for instance, differs very widely from their latest, or last album. I like to see what, if any, influences have found their way into their music over the years and if they've experimented or tried other things at all.
But the first three albums from Backstreet Boys all seem to be very much tied in with their sudden success, so I'm going to have to review them all. After this there's only one other I'm going to be able to stomach, so we'll try and take one from later in their career. Right now, it's on to album number three, and the one that broke them wide open commercially, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Millennium - Backstreet Boys - 1999 (Jive)
Although only seen as the second BSB album in the US, this was in fact their third release, and with the twenty-first century charging up behind them like an unstoppable locomotive, perhaps the title was well chosen. Perhaps it would, retrospectively, also refer to the millions of units the album would shift. At any rate, it opens with “Larger than Life”, with some annoying synth sounds, laughter and a dancy uptempo number to carry on where “Backstreet's Back” left off (in terms of opening tracks), with Brian Littrell again trying his hand at writing, though this time with two of the established writers, Max Martin and Kristian Lundin. Hard to see his input into this song, as it's pretty generic, but probably went down well with the fans. It's one of those many “empowering” songs BSB and other boybands would flood their albums with, telling their fans basically that they could control their own destiny, which is a bit ironic as the fans were basically being told what to like by the band and their label.
Their biggest ever single is next, and there's no place for Littrell in “I Want it That Way”, a mid-paced ballad with those damnable handclaps back again! It's pretty insipid, but then you can say that of a lot of BSB's work, indeed a lot of Westlife, Take That and any other boyband you care to name. The boys seem to have changed their “bad boy” image for this album, pictured on the album sleeve in immaculate white outfits, as if they're some sort of angels or ministers of some order. The songs reflect this new image too, with none of the “rock the house”/”Where's the party” type that populated the first two albums, and more love songs and restrained themes.
“Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” is another ballad, and indeed another hit single, which perfectly suits their admittedly excellent close-harmony singing, some nice Spanish guitar giving the tune a bit of class, and I'm glad to say that for once the players get credited this time round, though in fairness there are so many guitarists it's hard to know who's playing on what. Good that they get credit though, as they certainly deserve it. Producer and songwriter par excellence Robert John “Mutt” Lange lends his expertise to “It's Got to Be You”, earning my undying enmity for squandering his considerable talents on such a throwaway piece of cr.. well, it's pretty formulaic, is what I'm saying.
Beautiful piano intro to “I Need You Tonight” helps me to push the ugly memory of the previous track to the back of my mind, and it's another lovely ballad, and well sung it has to be said, while there are two songs whose title begins with the word “don't” to follow, the first being “Don't Want You Back”, another dancefloor filler, with some hard percussion and some funky guitar, nice stride piano, a song which tries hard but fails to be a rocker, then “Don't Wanna Lose You Now” is not a cover of the Gloria Estefan ballad, though it is again a ballad. Littrell and Max Martin collaborate again, for the second time on this album and the third effort by the BSB singer, on “The One”, which starts in a balladic vein but quickly becomes what I think I'm going to have to term a “dancer” for the rest of these reviews. Not too bad for him, it made it to be released as a single. In fairness, it has a certain rock, or at least AOR edge to it, making it less annoying than previous uptempo songs from these guys, and with a little polish and a few more guitars it could even work for the likes of Bryan Adams or Richard Marx. Maybe.
Not to be outdone by his fellow Backstreet Boy, Kevin Richardson (doesn't he play for Sunderland? No? No, you're right, that's Kieran. Oh well...) tries his own hand at songwriting when he contributes to “Back to Your Heart”, which as you might expect is another slushy ballad, with some really nice acoustic guitar and the always-waiting digital piano backed by some solid keyboards and in fairness some quite effective vocal harmonies. Again, for a first effort it's not at all bad, even if he didn't strike out on his own like Littrell did. Another ballad (yeah, get used to it), “Spanish Eyes” is certainly a title that's been used before, but for what it is it does its job, with some tasteful guitar and castanets, not surprisingly, a nice orchestral arrangement filling out the melody. Not too bad at all.
And the ballads keep coming, in a veritable tsunami of slush and sugar, a wall of digital piano and acoustic guitar and soft percussion. “No-one Else Comes Close” is, again, a nice little tune, but the problem with having so many ballads on an album is that the really good ones start to merge with the not so good, and it's hard to remember a good track: by now it's all sort of blended into one pulpy, sugary mass surrounded by close-harmony singing and handclaps. And undeterred by this, we finish on yet another ballad, a final stab at writing for Brian Littrell, on “The Perfect Fan”. Don't think they're talking about the kind you use to keep yourself cool, either.
As I said, there's a definite change of direction for Backstreet Boys on this album. Perhaps realising that they were making it big, and about to make it bigger, they ditched the “bad boy/rebel” image and reinvented themselves (or were reinvented) as clean-cut, pure and safe, the kind of band a teenage girl's mother would approve of her daughter being into. The music backs this up, with no hard-edged or risky songs, no real references to things like partying all night or “getting a bad boy”. In ways, on this album it would appear that Backstreet Boys grew up, possibly becoming Backstreet Men...
1. Larger than Life
2. I Want it That Way
3. Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely
4. It's Gotta Be You
5. I Need You Tonight
6. Don't Want You Back
7. Don't Wanna Lose You Now
8. The One
9. Back to Your Heart
10. Spanish Eyes
11. No-one Else Comes Close
12. The Perfect Fan
And so we leap all the way forward to 2007, where their sixth album would be the first not to feature Kevin Richardson, who had left to pursue other interests (no, not to join Sunderland Football Club! I already made it clear that was Kieran!) but would temporarily rejoin the band in 2011, with a possibility of the move being made permanent, as he was never replaced. The album features a lot more songs penned by the boys, and is minus the participation of longtime songwriters Max Martin and Kristian Lundin.
Unbreakable - Backstreet Boys - 2009 (Jive)
It opens, interestingly, with less than a minute of acapella singing, which goes under the (admittedly imaginative) title of “Intro”, then kicks into “Everything but Mine”, a dancer with a pretty high tempo, and the first time I've heard them use my least favourite music tool ever, the vocoder. Why can't people just sing in their own voices? What? Yes I know ELO used them but that was a totally different thing. How was it different? Um, well, uh – oh! Look at that very interesting thing over there! Anyway, it's got a hard enough edge to it, almost veering this side of rock, though not quite. The handclaps are there again, but the guitars are harder, the drumming a little more powerful. As inevitable as the sunrise or revelations of a politician's expenses scandal, the first ballad comes in the shape of “Inconsolable”, though in fairness it kicks up a little within about a minute and becomes a kind of mid-paced track, with a little nod to Bruce Hornsby, particularly in the piano work.
So the first ballad proper then is “Something that I Already Know”, or is it? It also ramps up pretty soon after starting (hey, I don't know these songs! Don't blame me!) with something like a Kelly Clarkson sound, and I have to admit this album is less dance/pop and more towards the pop/rock side of things. I still wouldn't listen to it in a fit, of course, but of the four I've reviewed now, this is far and away the one I'd be least embarrassed to be discovered listening to, which is about the best compliment I can pay the Backstreet Boys.
I must admit, I never thought I'd say this about a BSB album, but, like, where are the ballads? Well, “Helpless When She Smiles” sounds like it may fit the bill, though I'm getting a little wary of these songs that start slow and then suddenly, for want of a better phrase and I'm aware it's a contradiction in terms, rock out. But this one seems to be a true ballad. Nice bit of electric guitar just there, and a very pleasant piano melody running through the song.
It's a hard thing for an old rocker to admit, but you know, some of the ballads on these albums could possibly end up finding their way onto one of my playlists in the future. Shh! Just don't tell anyone ok? I have a reputation to maintain! Dammit, I've always liked a good slow song, and I must admit these guys have all but cornered the market there. “Any Other Way” is not a ballad, a more upbeat, uptempo track with a sort of ABBA-like keyboard hook (or could be strings possibly), then the first (other than the opener) song the guys collaborate on is next. “One in a Million” sounds like it may be heading back in the direction of the original albums, too many damn handclaps and those vocoders again. Grr! They try again with “Panic”, but it's more of the same really, with the addition of a quasi-reggae beat. Not winning any friends round here, guys!
Perhaps they'd be better to leave the songwriting to the professionals, as “You Can Let Go”, with its semi-country melody, nice acoustic guitar and violins is much better, and they have no input into that, nor indeed into “Trouble is”, which with its again country-style guitar and rhythms balances back out the good with the bad. Nice bit of rock guitar in there too, tinging the song with a certain AOR feeling. Yeah, far better. Stick to singing guys, and leave the writing to those who make a living from it. Harsh? Maybe, but two bad songs in a row tells its own story.
There's some guest writing from one of the members of our next boyband to be reviewed, as JC Chasez from Nsync helps pen "Treat Me Right", but despite (or perhaps because of) his input, the quality level dips sharply for this song, then screams right back up to the summit for “Love Will Keep You Up All Night”, a beautiful piano ballad which benefits from the lack of their sticky fingers on the writing. The boys are also kept away from “Unmistakable”, another nice acoustic ballad that unfortunately suffers from vocoder* overload and handclap fever, and I would say the writers managed to make a mess of this without the Backstreet Boys getting involved, though as I listen to it it does start to get a little better, and I'll revise my original impression of this. It's actually quite good: while not in the same league as “You Can Let Go” or indeed “Helpless When She Smiles”, it's a decent enough song.
The lads are back then to finish things off with “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon”, a sort of acoustic coda and followup to the opener, some nice orchestral arrangements adding to the song and filling it out nicely, bringing the album to a pretty powerful and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Like I say, of the four of the Backstreet Boys', so far, seven albums this is the one that I've hated reviewing the least. It betrays a leaning towards a certain harder, almost rockier sound, and though they'll always be the band teenage (and older) girls (and probably boys too, can't be that sexist) dance to, they do seem to be growing up, from their change of image on 1999's Millennium to this album (though I haven't listened to the ones in between), and their music seems to be growing with them. Whether they wish to shake the boyband tag or not I don't know, but on this album they manage to come quite close.
2. Everything But Mine
4. Something that I Already Know
5. Helpless When She Smiles
6. Any Other Way
7. One in a Million
9. You Can Let Go
10. Trouble is
11. Treat Me Right
12. Love Will Keep You Up All Night
14. Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon
* You know, that could be the thrice-cursed hellish pop music feature known as autotune. I'm not au fait in these things. Very annoying either way.
So that's the Backstreet Boys well and truly catalogued, and as I switch off the viewer and power down my laptop for the night, I think about the impression this band has made on me as my footsteps echo loudly on the flagstones of the archive. The curator waves almost absent-mindedly to me: I've been here for the last week or so, going through the wealth of information on Backstreet Boys, watching videos, interviews, live performances and of course listening to their music and researching their career.
I always hated them, like I hate all boybands. Well, not hate really: there's little I truly hate. But I've cursed and reviled them for the insidious way they've taken over the charts and the image they've presented to the world of what a band should - or should not - be. But despite myself, the more I listen to and learn about these boybands, the less I dislike them. I'm never going to be a fan, that's for sure, but at least now I know the stories behind them, and it makes it a little easier to perhaps understand them, which was after all my intention when I began this series, what seems a lifetime ago now.
Back at the hotel, I thumb my mobile and tell Max I'll need him to drive me tomorrow. My research here in Chicotania is over, and it's time to move on to New Southland, to start learning about that other big American boyband, Nsync. I can hardly wait, but I do wonder if my opinion of them will change in the same way it's (kind of) changed regarding the Backstreet Boys? Well, tomorrow we'll start out on our journey and I'll have a chance to find out. For now, at this moment, exhausted and my brain exploding with facts, figures and dancing boys, there's only one thing I need, and that's sleep.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018