The Backstreet Boys are guided by voices

The Backstreet Boys' new album is their first as an independent act - and we are impressed by an assured collection of soulful close-harmony pop.

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Backstreet Boys
In a World Like This

It was way back in May 1993 that the Backstreet Boys performed their first proper concert, at the popular American theme park SeaWorld. Two decades on, the cover of the Florida-formed quintet's eighth album sees them gazing manfully across a watery expanse, as if weighing up an ocean of possibilities.

In a World Like This is the first LP to feature the full original line-up since 2005's Never Gone, Kevin Richardson having left the following year to pursue acting projects. It's also their debut recording as an independent act (albeit subsequently licensed to BMG), a move that offered unprecedented creative control. So would this new-found freedom result in a radical new direction? Are the Backstreet Boys now an indie band?

Well, not really. There are successful deviations from the classic formula, but the ethos here is actually more chart-focused than before. As Nick Carter readily admits in the publicity material: "All five of us were determined to create an album where every song could be a single" - and they achieve this with extravagant assurance. As the most successful boy-band ever, they know a bit about making hits.

Several of the dozen tracks almost do away with verses altogether; in fact, the abruptness brings to mind a memorable album title from another 1990s pop act: Roxette's Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus! That philosophy is particularly apparent on Love Somebody, a dumb-but-fun dance effort with some unintentionally comical lyrics, such as the earnestly crooned "you're the reason why cavemen drew on the wall." Presumably it's meant as a compliment.

That said, there are promising signs of musical maturity, too. Backstreet are renowned for close harmonies but the two strongest moments here isolate their secret weapon, the majestic vocals of AJ McLean. The standout track, Try, is a marvellous stab at a retro soul standard, while Madeleine - "for anyone that feels bullied, that feels like they can't talk to someone", according to McLean - harks back to The Beatles' folksier material.

The band relocated to London to record much of the album, and there are further nods to Britpop old and new: heavy hints of Coldplay's anthemic guitars in Show 'Em (What You're Made Of), while the soaring harmonies of Breathe are hugely reminiscent of late-era Bee Gees. Gazing across the Atlantic has clearly offered a refreshing route forward. Sometimes you need a break from the old backstreet.

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