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They’re Back!

Never Gone, the new Backstreet Boys album, is the strange waxen fruit of their introspection after a five-year absence: The former Boy Kings of the white-pop landscape have crawled down from their penthouses and reunited after “a healthy breather,” during which the Boys gained “perspective on the whirlwind of fame.” And what a whirlwind: “I Want It That Way” was No. 1 in 18 nations; they’ve sold a staggering 73 million albums worldwide. The Boys now find themselves standing on a melting iceberg that has detached itself from the celebrity ice sheet they ruled when they were too young and dumb to know what to do with it. The underlying vibe on this album is “Help! Please re-attach our iceberg,” but they are floating too far out, to quote Tina Brown quoting Courtney Love, in the “howling sea of schadenfreude.” Never Gone, according to the press material, “reflects the adult ideals” of the “quintet.” These hyperderivative, frantic, overwrought songs, for all their studio glitz, reveal that the Boys have begun to think and care: They feel angst and inner conflict. Now they are Backstreet Men, which means they are at odds with their own intrinsic purpose — as Martin Amis’ John Self would say, “Then what is the point of you?” Who wants maturity, sincerity, frailty and doubt in their bubblegum power-pop? The press photo features the Boys looking surly, sitting in a vintage muscle car. Most of them look like they got enough nookie to not really care anymore — they’re in this album, most likely, for the hell of it. Nick Carter is a bad bag of damage: Bloated, louche and effluvia-poisoned, he looks like he should be deposited in the medical biohazard tub at the nearest rest stop — Paris Hilton seems to have sucked off the last of his cuteness and vitality. The saddest Backstreet Boy is poor Howie, who looks grateful and overeager to try it all again. Howie seems to have never gotten enough of the Backstreet phenomenon when it was actually happening. His look never really came together; he never really had a pronounced boy-band identity, like “the cute blond puppy-boy” or “the bad boy with nose rings.” Howie’s desperate search for love is not over. He’s still giving and giving. Josh Baran, a “crisis-management PR consultant,” commented to Time magazine about the recent Tom Cruise core meltdown on Oprah: “Once you get to the ‘I want you to like me’ phase, then you are lost in confusion. Because now, not only do people not like you, but they think you are creepy and weird. It becomes a caricature, a pathology . . . You sell your soul to get others to love you.” There’s one pretty good song on Never Gone, called “Weird World” (penned by songwriter John Ondrasik from the group Five for Fighting). It’s a little bit haunting, has thoughtful lyrics, a soulful beat. It was whipped and sugared into ADD-cheesecake supreme in the production studio, but there’s something in that song, if you listen carefully, beneath the 42 layers of overworked, expensive noise — the voices of real humans, screaming to us from an iceberg far, far away.