"Backstreet Men" doesn't really have the same ring, but make no mistake, the Backstreet Boys are coming back more mature on their first album in five years.
The group, which hasn't released a collection of new music since 2000's Black & Blue, just wrapped sessions for the as-yet-untitled album, which might surprise people expecting the same pop sound of old, according to member Howie Dorough.
"We've been working on it for more than a year now, but it really started taking shape and changing over the past six months," Dorough said. "It's going in a more pop/rock direction, kind of us-meets-Matchbox Twenty /Goo Goo Dolls /Train." Sifting through a pile of 100-150 songs that were written for them, the band recorded 40, including "I Still," "Weird World" and "Incomplete."
"The content of what they're singing about is more serious," co-manager Johnny Wright said of the group, which also includes Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, A.J. McLean and Nick Carter. "Two of them are married now, so the subject matter is not, 'I saw you at the drive-in, let's go get a soda,' or 'Go to a club and party all night.' They're singing about relationships and what men go through, not boys."
Dorough said the group purposely took its time on the tracks, even though there was pressure to release an album last year. With the pop music world moving in a more rock-oriented direction since BSB last released an album, Dorough said the extra time was necessary to make sure they fit in with the current scene. "With the direction we're going in now, I think some of these songs you could put on the radio and listen to three or four times and you wouldn't know it was us," he said. "I played some of them for my guy friends who are not into our music at all, and are more into Blink-182 type bands, and they listened to it and dug it."
Coming off a decade-long run of nearly nonstop touring, Dorough said the break they took was also necessary for the group to recharge its batteries. "It gave us more to write about," he said. "You have to experience life to be able to write about it."
The final track listing hasn't been set yet, but the sessions marked a reconnection with uber-pop songwriter Max Martin (Britney Spears, 'NSYNC), who wrote and produced three songs that could make the album (see "What Year Is It? Backstreet Boys Planning World Tour, Working With Max Martin"). Dorough said "Climbing the Walls," "I Still" and the ballad "Siberia" have a harder edge than such memorable Martin-penned BSB hits as "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)."
Backstreet also hooked up with some new, less likely collaborators.
"Weird World," a "message song" written by Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik, sounds very different for a BSB song at first. "Sent a message to a GI today/ Thank you, man, for sending us another dawn," is one of the lyrics Dorough quoted, explaining, "You can get so caught up in your own world, and on the other side of the world, people are fighting for our freedom. So it's a very timely song with the war going on."
The band has also hooked up with former Savage Garden singer Darren Hayes on the midtempo song "Lift Me Up," as well as the a cappella group Take 6, who produced a song written by Dorough called "Moving On." Their musical heroes, Boyz II Men, collaborated on "Jealous" and Dorough described the Underdogs-produced "Not No More" as "us meets R. Kelly."
Other songs recorded for the album include the uptempo, early Michael Jackson-style "Beautiful Woman" and "Rushing Through Me," which Dorough said was inspired by the "tribal African" feel of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes."
Many of the songs feature live instrumentation and the familiar multi-voice harmonies are less prevalent than in the past. Dorough, 31, said the group — which wrote or co-wrote 10 songs — has enough material that it could release separate pop/rock and R&B albums if it wanted to, but he suspects the 10-to-15-track final result will be a mix of the two sounds.
The first single, slated for release in mid-February, will be chosen next week, with Dorough pulling for the uptempo, feel-good pop-rocker "I Still." The album is due in early June, with a major tour starting on the Fourth of July weekend. But before that, the Boys are scheduled to play a series of warm-up radio promo dates and House of Blues gigs during the first week of March to reconnect with their audience, according to Wright.
"These guys have been around for 13 years and the fans who were with them 13 years ago grew up like the Backstreet Boys did, and they have different things happening in their lives now," Wright said of the potential for the group's fans to have moved on to other kinds of music. "If younger fans want to jump on, that's great, but we're making a record for the fans who were always there."