The Spice Boy Syndrome

On the cover of their second album, No Strings Attached, the young men of 'N Sync are depicted as little marionettes on a tiny stage. They've heard what detractors have said about all the formulaic boy-toy harmony groups out of Lou Pearlman's Florida hit factory, and at least they have a sense of humor about the criticism, as the cover is a sardonic reference to the fact that, in the wake of their 10-million-selling debut, 'N Sync have severed the contractual strings that tied the group to their Orlando svengali.

Still, who really knows what kind of devil's bargain was cut to allow 'N Sync to change their manager, record label, production strategy and royalty arrangements quickly enough to capitalize on whatever is left of their 15 minutes of fame? Chances are, various parties got huge point overrides on anticipated profits from No Strings Attached — provided, of course, that the new project lost no momentum. Now the record is in stores, and the commercial juggernaut comprising Justin Timberlake, J.C. Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Lance Bass and Joey Fatone just marches on in the unstoppable — and, frankly, astonishing — show-business tradition of TLC and the Spice Girls.

Now, admittedly, this all may be mere afterthought, but is the album any good? Well, yes and no. It is a profoundly schizophrenic collection of impulses, bouncing from jittery Swedish dance-pop to conservative Beach Boy harmonies to staccato New Jack sass to Boyz II Men banality. The quintet claims to have made all the creative decisions here, so we can only presume that the group actually intended for its sophomore album to be musically all over the map. And, not surprisingly, that approach leads to mixed results.

On the up side, there's the current single, "Bye Bye Bye" — the best thing the Backstreet Boys never recorded. Then again, that's no real surprise, since members of the Swedish production team responsible for Backstreet's hits produced it. (With Backstreet, Britney Spears and 'N Sync now all on Jive, sharing producers looks more like a Motown marketing move than direct competition.) In the past, 'N Sync were thought to have a stronger, more macho approach to uptempo material than the Backstreet Boys, so they've gone after quite a few funky fast tracks for this new album. The title track will remind you of the kinds of Nuyorican freestyle records TKA and the Barrio Boys used to make, and in yet another bid for late-'80s nostalgia, they've tracked down producer Teddy Riley to help them remake Johnny Kemp's old hit, "Just Got Paid." While I know 'N Sync think this remake demonstrates versatility, wit and street cred, it still sounds just a little corny against Kemp's original — much like the Osmond Brothers measuring up against the Jackson Five. Similarly, 'N Sync's collaboration with Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs on "It Makes Me Ill" falls short of the stylistic tribute to Missy Elliott and Destiny's Child it was obviously intended to be, mainly because 'N Sync's diction is just not, well, urban enough to bring off Briggs' syncopated rhyme schemes with the necessary edge and emphasis.

The group does, however, accomplish a perfect rendition of the lovely Diane Warren ballad "That's When I'll Stop Loving You," and the a cappella "I Thought She Knew" manages a credible evocation of the Four Seasons by way of Take 6. But even with enough radio-friendly singles to make them multiplatinum again, No Strings Attached is, all told, far from the magnum pop-soul opus 'N Sync so sincerely want it to be.