Nearly 5 years after their last studio album, the Backstreet Boys mark a resolute return with their 5th disc June 14 on Jive Records. The 12-song "Never Gone" reflects the adult ideals of a quintet that broke music and concert sales records the world over, moving more than 73 million albums (30 million in America) since their introduction in 1997.
Certainly, pop culture remains on a first-name basis with the five singers that comprise BSB: Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Kevin Richardson. When they scored in the U.S. with the debut platinum single "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)"-followed by such radio staples as "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "All I Have To Give" and the No. 1 (in 18 nations) "I Want It That Way"- the Backstreet Boys grew to personify an unprecedented and celebrated youth-driven era in popular music.
As teen idols, they sold more than 13 million copies each of their first two U.S. albums, "Backstreet Boys" (1997) and the No. 1 (in 25 nations) "Millennium" (1999). "Black and Blue" followed (2000), moving 8 million copies, and then "Hits: Chapter One" (2001), another platinum triumph. Along the way, the group logged12 top 40 hits, 8 of those reaching the top 10.
Today, nearly a decade since their initial success-and following a healthy 3-year breather-each group member admits that they needed time to catch up, grow up and gain some perspective on the whirlwind of fame.
"We had been touring pretty much non-stop for 7 or 8 years and we were almost living in a bubble; we had lost perspective on a lot of things," Kevin says. "You need to take care of yourself and rest and be able to reflect. This time off gave us a chance to recharge our batteries and step away and see what has happened in our lives, what we have accomplished and to be thankful for the opportunities that we have had and thankful for each other."
Brian became the first Backstreet Father during the break, Kevin took on Broadway and London's West End with a starring role in "Chicago," Nick put out a solo project and Howie continued his efforts with the Dorough Lupus Foundation after the loss of his oldest sister Caroline in 1998. AJ McLean worked through personal demons with a well-publicized stint in rehab.
"I've been sober for 2 ½ years," AJ says. "I appreciate my family more, these guys more and myself more. Life is great. It's worth living again."
"Never Gone," which BSB spent more than a year recording, accomplishes the formidable task of moving beyond pop idol notoriety to reflect what is happening in the group's lives and in the world. The project features intensely personal, upfront vocals, coupled with production that spares drum loops and synthesizers for a mature, live, more rootsy vibe. Don't worry-the pandemic hooks and velvet harmonies are still there, behind lyrics that tell universal stories of hope, loss, redemption and love.
First single "Incomplete," released in April, proves Backstreet Boys' enduring relevance; in its first week out, the ballad was most-added at radio. By the end of May, the song was climbing the top 10 on Billboard's mainstream top 40 chart as well as the top 5 of Top Digital Downloads. The accompanying video clip reached No. 1 on AOL and garnered rotation on MTV, VH1 and MuchMusic.
Title track, "Never Gone," is among the most moving songs on the album. Written by BSB's Kevin Richardson with Gary Baker and Steve Diamond, the harmony-drenched ballad pays tribute to the death of Kevin's father. It is produced by Mark Taylor.
"That song has really been important to each one of us," AJ says. "In addition to the loss of Kevin's father, I lost both of my grandparents, Nick his grandmother and Howie his sister. We've all experienced great losses, so this song really touches us personally."
Additional name-brand collaborators that assisted in launching the Backstreet Boys' Chapter 2 include Billy Mann on "Poster Girl", and Switchfoot's John Fields on "Lose It All". Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik contributes "Weird World," a song that examines in life in post 9/11 society.
The guys also worked with John Shanks, the 2005 Grammy Award Producer of the Year ("Safest Place To Hide"); and the venerable Max Martin, who helped catapult to fame Ace of Base, Britney Spears-and BSB, with "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," "As Long As You Love Me" and "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)."
Martin collaborated on 4 of the 12 songs on "Never Gone," including "Climbing the Walls," a tour de force of conflicting emotion, coupled with a melody so immediately gratifying, you'll be singing along by the second chorus; and the melancholy love song "I Still," which features skyscraping vocals and a magical mesh of harmonies that should be a patented trademark for the Backstreet Boys. Martin also worked with BSB on "Just Want You To Know" and "Siberia."
Being in the studio together for the first time in years, it took the group some time to integrate their different musical influences. But according to AJ, "Once we got with Max, everything shifted and we started going more toward contemporary, alternative pop with a little R&B. We found exactly what we are supposed to be doing for this album. It's more organic, with more live instruments, and a nice departure for us. If we kept on doing what we used to do-with the way music sounds today-people wouldn't care anymore. We had to step ahead of ourselves."
Brian adds, "It was essential for us to grow. If we're not getting better and challenging ourselves, what are we here for?"
Certainly, the average life span of most acts in popular culture is far less than a decade, but the Backstreet Boys are proving that growing with your audience-while staying true to a track record of timeless melodies-cultivates the rare gift of endurance. Indeed, Backstreet's back... again.
"We're excited and we hope our fans are, too," Kevin says. "We're looking forward to a happy, prosperous 2005."
Track listing for "Never Gone" is:
Just Want You To Know
Crawling Back To You
Lose It All
Climbing The Walls
My Beautiful Woman
Safest Place To Hide
--- from the official Backstreet Boys website