You did not grow up in the world over which the Backstreet Boys now reign: Your treacly pop songs didn't feature cell phones with batteries cutting out, for example, and your teen idols usually included only one "thanks to the fans" number on their albums, not three. One-hit wonders were still a problem that hitmakers hadn't quite ironed out, and drummers could still find work. Pop music--the real stuff, the stuff that everybody claims to hate but that is genuinely popular--was big business when you were a kid, sure. But there was nothing in your time even remotely like the money-making machine out of Orlando that now gives us the Backstreet Boys' latest album, Black and Blue.
You know who the Backstreet Boys are; you probably think they suck. Well, they don't. Neither did Abba, but the proclaimers of Abba's genius who now haunt the byways of the cognoscenti were nowhere to be found when Abba actually was on the charts. It took wiseguys like you 20 years to cop to the flat-out brilliance of "Dancing Queen." This is not a specious comparison: Eight of Black and Blue's 12 songs were recorded in Sweden and feature session men with names like Ulf Jonson and Gustave Lund. Among these eight is the album's first single, "Shape of My Heart," which will have soothed the wounds of every brokenhearted 12-year-old in the country by the time you finish reading this sentence. Its lyrics are an almost uncrackable cipher but its meaning is made clear in the production's seamlessness: the water-drop echo on the acoustic guitars that open the song; the crystalline synths that swell like berries toward the end of the first verse and then explode into the chorus; the producer's strategy of quietly dropping in a new sound every eight or 12 bars, so that you progress from relatively sparse beginnings to an utterly lush, multivoiced pop soundscape without noticing what's going on. It's digital, and it's heavily compressed, but it's roughly the same strategy Abba employed to lend "Knowing Me, Knowing You" its stately air.
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Black and Blue was expected to generate record-setting numbers at the registers, so lots of attention has been given to detail. Each song gets its own production team (Babyface does some of his best work in years and even sings on the ain't-showbiz-grand ballad "Time"), but no overall producer is named. It is therefore impossible to know whom to thank for the brilliant sequencing strategy, which frontloads the disc with up-tempo, computer-generated dance numbers, saving the real riches for the back nine: As the record draws to its close, ballads follow one another like lemmings to a cliff, and the preteen aches intensify. (Not a minute too soon, either, because the Backstreet Boys couldn't get funky if they all swore off showering for a month.) Although the penultimate number, "What Makes You Different (Makes You Beautiful)," masquerades as a love song, it is actually a coded message of hope to lonely adolescents everywhere. "Come as you are/You've got nothing to prove/You warm me with all that you do," sings Howard "Howie D" Dorough in his quivering tenor. The faux strings fatten and the acoustic guitars imitate harps again, and the Backstreet Boys do their best to make the pain go away. It is a gesture so beautiful that only an uncommonly cold heart could fail to be moved by it. Don't wait 20 years to embrace what's waiting to give you some guilty pleasure right now. The CD booklet features four full pages thanking you, the fans, for all your support. Do yourself a favor. Give in.