Backstreet delivers the goods

Review: Backstreet Boys' new release has all the catchy hooks and sweet lyrics a teen-age girl could want.

May 18, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

This week, the long wait finally ends. After months of well-planned teases and carefully edited excerpts, the final release is at hand -- and the fans couldn't be happier. After all, what we're looking at is a genuine pop culture phenomenon, something that transcends mere entertainment to define the lives of millions of American teens.

And I don't mean "Stars Wars."

No, the phenomenon I have in mind is the Backstreet Boys, who have just released their second album, "Millennium" (Jive 41672, arriving in stores today). Coming on the heels of the Boys' 10-million selling debut -- a title which still graces the Billboard Top-40 -- "Millennium" is destined to become the summer's other big seller, siphoning millions from the pockets of eagerly adoring teens.

That show of teen spirit is not necessarily a plus, however. Because it's hard to think of the Backstreet Boys without imagining hordes of screaming, teen-age girls, many pop fans dismiss the quintet as pre-fab pretty boys, presuming that their popularity has more to do with the ability to stimulate adolescent hormones than with the ability to sing.

It's not as if the Boys play down their popularity, either. "Millennium" opens with "Larger Than Life," an ode to the audience that borders on the gushing. After teasingly evoking the stresses of teen idol-dom -- "I may run and hide/When you're screamin' my name," goes the opening couplet -- the song turns the complaint into a compliment. "Every time we're down/You can make it right," the chorus assures the audience, adding that it's the fans -- not the Boys -- who are really "Larger Than Life."

With a dark, driving synth arrangement adding mock urgency to the tune, "Larger Than Life" is catchy, danceable, and smarmy to such a degree that any Backstreet-basher could justifiably point to the track and say, "See? It's pure pop manipulation."

Fortunately, there are more moments of musical merit than manipulation on the disc.

"Don't Want You Back," for instance, takes the same basic approach as "Larger Than Life," what with its thumping keyboards, sledgehammer riffs, minor-key melody, and club-style groove. But instead of the phony smile plastered on "Life," this tune pulls a snarl from the music. "Don't Want You Back" is an anti-love song (the girl's bad news, and the guys don't want anything to do with her), and the Boys deliver the lines with edgy intensity.

Even better is the tuneful, mid-tempo ballad, "I Want It That Way." It's co-written and co-produced by Max Martin, the Swedish producer responsible for Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time" as well as several hits from the Boys' first album. The song is a model of melodic efficiency, with each verse building slowly and inexorably to the gently harmonized chorus. It may lack lyrical depth, but it has the sort of hook that will leave even the most casual listener humming happily.

Ballads are a Backstreet strong suit. Even though none of the five has a spectacularly strong solo voice, the Boys sing with an earnest emotionality that lends weight to their puppy-love lyrics. That's not to say every slow song comes to life in their hands -- even Frank Sinatra would have had a hard time animating drivel like "Spanish Eyes" -- but "I Need You Tonight" and "Back In Your Heart" are among the album's strongest songs.

Still, for all the album's strengths, there are some things it takes a teen-ager to appreciate, and "The Perfect Fan" is one of them. Written by Backstreeter Brian Littrell as a tribute to his mom, the song is equal parts Hallmark Card and R. Kelly ballad, with more corn per square inch than any acre in Iowa.

If you're 13 and overly sentimental, it will likely strike you as the height of poetic genius. Everyone else would be left thinking, "Gag me with a teen star."

`Millennium'

Backstreet Boys

(Jive 41672)

**1/2

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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