You did not grow up in the world over which the Backstreet Boys presently 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 hit makers 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 moneymaking machine out of Orlando that now gives us the Backstreet Boys' latest album, Black & Blue.
You know who the Backstreet Boysare. 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 was actually on the charts. It took wise guys like you 20 years to cop to the flat-out brilliance of "Dancing Queen." This is not a specious comparison: Eight of Black & 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 ("Looking back on the things I've done/I was trying to be someone/Play my part/Kept you in the dark/Now let me show you/The shape of my heart") 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 8 or 12 bars, so that you progress from relatively sparse beginnings to an utterly lush, multivoiced pop soundscape without noticing what's going on. Though the end result is digital and heavily compressed, this is roughly the same formula Abba employed to lend "Knowing Me, Knowing You" its stately air.
Black & Blue was expected to generate record-setting numbers at the registers, so lots of attention had 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 show biz grand" ballad "Time"), but no overall producer is named. It is therefore impossible to know whom to thank for the brilliant sequencing strategy, which front-loads 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 (and not a minute too soon, either, since the Backstreet Boys couldn't get funky if they all swore off showering for a month). The penultimate number (available only on the Wal-Mart version of Black & Blue), "What Makes You Different (Makes You Beautiful)," while masquerading as a love song, 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, 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.
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