Review: Backstreet’s Back With Contemporary-Pop Magic on ‘DNA’
DNA is the first Backstreet Boys album to hit Number One in nearly 20 years, quite a moment for a group that’s spent the lion’s share of those two decades wandering the pop wilderness. Of course, if the BSB who sold somewhere in the neighborhood of eleventy skadillion records between 1997 and 2001 were to gaze into our dystopic future and behold the diminished reality of DNA‘s 234,000 first-week “pure purchases,” they’d probably drown themselves in the nearest hot tub. Today, however, the Backstreet’s-backness signified by that paltry sales figure is worth a thousand Best Buy loading docks stocked to the rafters with Clinton Impeachment-era CD pre-orders.
BSB have been grinding it out on the nostalgia tour circuit for years like white-suited Willy Lomans, which helps explain their fans’ relative resilience. But what puts DNA over isn’t just audience empathy; it’s the group’s willingness to forgo the rock-aware stabs at maturity that have marked much of their subpar post-Nineties output. Instead, they hew their still strikingly boyish group-vocal magic to contemporary pop written and produced by top-tier technicians. The hit single “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” smithed by the album’s most prominent collaborator, Stuart Crichton, is sleek EDM-pop that brings to mind Backstreet’s roots minting that sound in Max Martin’s Swedish laboratory. Shawn Mendes and Ryan Tedder contribute the plaintively throbbing “Chances”; Bruno Mars collaborators the Stereotypes and Andy Grammer worked on the taut funk-pop tune “Passionate”; and Nashville hands Brett James and Ross Copperman help the Boys ease their way into country settings on “No Place” and “Just Like You Like It.”
The Boys show off their food-court doo-wop alchemy on the shimmering a cappella escapade “Breathe,” but there’s little attempt here to reclaim the Valhallan heights of feathery bombast that fueled “I Want it That Way,” still the “Stairway to Heaven” of the peak boy-band age. Instead, there’s a down-to-earth sense of crisp, hooky economy à la Mendes and Puth, gentlemanly horniness mixed with bittersweet innocence they wear well, even as grown men who know what it’s like to soldier their way to hard-earned redemption.