After leaving their longtime label, Jive, and bringing departed member Kevin Richardson back into the fold for the first time since 2005’s Never Gone, the Backstreet Boys are striking out as a newly independent “boy band” on their eighth studio album, In a World Like This. But with the exception of a slight shift from lyrics about babes to lyrics about babies, and a few songs better suited for the coffeehouse than the dance floor, not much else has really changed about the group’s music.
The album’s Max Martin-produced opening title track is a decidedly limp single compared to the group’s early hits, its cloying acoustic verses exploding into the forced bombast of the song’s chorus. This isn’t an isolated case of glossy production overcompensating for half-assed songwriting either, as tracks like “Soldier” and “Feels Like Home” similarly prop up lightweight hooks with pristine arrangements and booming programmed percussion. The latter song, complete with shameless shout-outs to seemingly every city or country in which the Backstreet Boys could ever hope to book a concert, seems to exist solely for the purpose of hyping up crowds at the group’s live shows.
Producer Martin Terefe helps the Backstreet Boys unlock their inner singer-songwriters, with the standout ballad “Breathe” allowing their rich harmonies to take center stage alongside understated acoustic guitar. If they’re able to avoid the tepid, coffeehouse background music of songs like “Madeleine” and “Try,” this stripped-down approach might be one worth exploring further for the group. But even a clearly heartfelt moment like “Show ’Em (What You’re Made Of),” a song co-written by Richardson about becoming a father, quickly becomes saccharine with empty lines like “Find the truth in a child’s eye/Where the only limit is the sky.”
As heirs to the same inflexible niche market once occupied by tour-mates New Kids on the Block and now dominated by One Direction, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to find the Backstreet Boys still struggling to find an identity and a personality this late in their career. In a landscape where any experimentation is done at the risk of losing one’s fickle target demographic, they seem stuck returning to the same predictable song structures and turgid melodies that made them famous in the first place.