Backstreet’s back alright, with AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, and Brian Littrell once again refusing to let middle age slow them down. In their first new studio album since 2013’s In A World Like This, the seminal boy band proves to be at their most flashy, and also their most experimental. Showcasing adept versatility, naturalistic ease, and the dexterous ability to ride the razor thin line between anthemic and sugary, DNA finds Backstreet Boys releasing their most inspired music in nearly two decades.
Who would have thought that in 2019 Backstreet Boys would be among pop’s greatest chameleons? Pinpointing the genre’s continuously shifting trends, DNA aims to add a touch of modernization into the vocal legends’ firmly established sound, with tracks penned and produced by contemporary voices like Shawn Mendes, Andy Grammer, and Ryan Tedder. The album is a glowing showcase of varied pop stylings, many sounding as fresh and inventive as ever. From the joyous escapism of club track “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and the tender, echoing love ballad “Nobody Else” to the stripped back dance beat of “Chances” and the soon-to-be guilty pleasure “Chateau,” there are several times throughout the tracklist where if you squint and tilt your head just so, you might be able to forget you were listening to a group of seasoned fortysomethings. They have managed to stretch out the revitalized energy of their teen heartthrob days into a sustainable career, which is no small feat.
There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen on the album – probably too many at times – and each brings their own unique stylistic spin on the atmosphere, resulting in an eclectic mix that crosses boundaries of both genre and tone. Early on, after we’ve already been lulled into the elated release of dance hall vibes, the energy gives way to “Breathe,” a haunting acapella showcase of the seamless harmonies that first skyrocketed the boys into the forefront of pop music. With “New Love,” they try out a collage of vibrant and contrasting sounds. Moving even further away from listener expectations, the laid back beachside guitar plucking of tracks like “No Place” and “Just Like You Like It” sound dangerously close to pop country tunes. The contrasting blend shouldn’t work, and it can be a bit jarring at times, but the final product is a hearty stew that has a little something for everyone.
The album isn’t without its missteps. The cloying “Passionate” sounds like it was written with the express purpose of being used in the background of a soda commercial and “Is It Just Me” is little more than a heavily autotuned skip track. However, the album is truly able to shine when the group acknowledges their age. There are certain lyrical journeys here that can only be achieved through decades of hindsight, such as those carried out on “The Way It Was,” a swaying testament to the shifting role of desire, or “OK,” a spastic, energetic declaration of enduring love. The boys have been around the block, and they’re gifting their audience the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
This charming and surprising thesis statement is steeped in infectious enjoyment and a level of experimentation even the most ambitious acts are hesitant to exhibit. DNA can feel disjointed at times and not all of its ventures are fruitful, but the album displays Backstreet Boys stripped of all pretense and name recognition, fully leaning into their desire to explore new waters and expand their sound. What’s more, the record definitively proves that they are anything but the nostalgia act audiences expect them to be.