What began as an Internet rumor turned into self-fulfilling prophecy, as shortly after denying reports about a reunion, New Kids on the Block officially announced plans for their comeback. Despite a recent attempt by the music industry to resurrect the perennial boy-band format with groups like Day26 and the Jonas Brothers, the timing is dubious: Donnie Wahlberg has reinvented himself as an actor, with a semi-respectable career in Hollywood that’s eclipsed in the pinup-turned-thespian pantheon only by his brother Marky, while Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre seemed to squeeze whatever residual goodwill remained from their aging fans when they scored solo hits in the midst of the last boy-band craze almost a decade ago. With an average age of 38, the New Kids are neither “kids” nor “new” nor “boys.” (Hell, they aren’t a “band” either, but we’ll let that one go.)
The vintage boy band’s first album in 14 years, The Block, was preceded by the cheesy single “Summertime,” but for the most part, the song doesn’t represent NKOTB 2.0 (or 3.0 if you remember their attempt at street cred with 1994’s Face the Music). The quintet has adopted the all-grown-up-so-take-me-seriously suit-and-tie style of former boy bander Justin Timberlake, and from the very first track, the understated Akon-assisted slow jam “Click Click Click,” there’s a decidedly more adult approach at play here. Of course, they also co-opt JT’s urban pop sound (see the new-new jack-n’-jill swing of “Grown Man,” a duet with the Pussycat Dolls, and “Big Girl Now,” featuring Lady Gaga) and The Block falters when the New Kids try to have it both ways: “Full Service” employs a timely but puerile gas station metaphor for sex (that or NKOTB represent the last shreds of romantic chivalry and just want to ease your pain at the pump) and they show their age by pretending it’s still 1987 on “Dirty Dancing” (“Ooh, it’s so crazy/She’s like Baby/I’m like Swayze”). Then again, that reference won’t be lost on the album’s target audience.
Adding a sixth voice to a NKOTB song (as they do on “Single,” featuring Ne-Yo—who sounds noticeably nasal and unrefined alongside the group’s seasoned harmonies) seems completely gratuitous, to say nothing of two pairings with the Pussycat Dolls—though “Lights, Camera, Action” at least makes for the fantastical possibility of a 10-popstar group sex tape. It’s not until the very end of the album that we get something that even remotely resembles a schmaltzy adult contemporary ballad (“Stare at You”), but after 40 minutes of pandering to urban audiences and modern trends (Autotune is used on almost every track), it’s actually a welcome change of pace.