Backstreet Boys Play Coy, Robbie Williams Is a Joy

Just as publications everywhere are doing their damnedest to grasp the suddenly galloping sensibility of America’s teenagers, massive quantities of a CD titled Millennium (Jive) are plastering the walls of record stores. It’s the follow-up to an infrequently analyzed, freely sobbed-about music release from 1997 entitled Backstreet Boys , an album by five Lexington, Ky.-via-Florida guys in their 20′s whose debut has sold 27 million copies worldwide to date. Like the first album, much of Millennium was recorded in Stockholm, under the assured knob-twiddling hands of such Swedish producers as Kristian Lundin, Rami and the fast emerging new king of international pop, Max Martin, the man who constructed Britney Spears’ recent mega-smash “… Baby One More Time.”

A sometime associate of the Stockholm-based Cheiron Productions, Mr. Martin worked formerly with the late Denniz Pop, known in the United States for his work with Ace of Base. Together, Denniz Pop and Mr. Martin produced early Backstreet Boys tracks like “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” one of the group’s biggest American hits and a late-90′s radio and video classic. Built around aired-out street beats and the sound of girls squealing-plus a descending minor-key bass riff that brands the music the way a logo identifies a pair of jeans-the track might have been mere party fodder, what with the Backstreet Boys encouraging listeners to rock their bodies. But in midjam, the Backstreet Boys stop and pose sad, even poignant questions that mate the anxieties of pop idols with those of, gee, postmodern artists the world over: “Am I original?” one of them innocently sings, his voice seemingly flown in from an old soul record, before going on to wonder, far less interestingly, whether his audience finds him sufficient in other ways. But, is he original -they’re kidding, right?

Maybe not. Just as country fans now hear a fresh new thing in the work of Shania Twain and her scarily good producer Robert John (Mutt) Lange, maybe Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears fans-a very young audience who crave an antidote to their parents’ rock or neo-soul, or their older brothers and sisters’ techno-hear something, yes, original. Mr. Martin’s Swedish production style is influenced by Mr. Lange’s reductive methods and the music of Abba, international pop’s timeless godhead of melodic European grace; it thrives on elimination. For instance, on Ms. Spears’ single, ordinary concerns about the facility and beauty of her voice, or the insight and wit of her subject matter, go out the window. “… Baby One More Time” is just an adequately alluring female voice singing about romantic pain, that’s all. What makes the record work is the glowing pop structure Mr. Martin encases it in. He slowly and dramatically unveils his plans in a three-minute song that seems to go on longer, arranging suspended piano notes, perfectly meshing background vocals and deafening one-beat accents. What so bothers traditional pop fans is the almost brutal grip Mr. Martin exercises, refusing any move into full-on rock or soul or dance. That means no spontaneous guitar riffing, no swaying choruses and no free grooves. Uh-uh. But that might be exactly what hooks younger fans.

Backstreet Boys was brilliant at delivering department store passion in this kind of studied vacuousness. Sometimes the boys did it by lavishing their voices on blue-ribbon pure-pop tunes like “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and the terrific “As Long as You Love Me” as though they were penned by Gustav Mahler-long established in somebody’s canon. Other times, they just fired up the musical logos and added more names to the fan club rolls.

On Millennium , Backstreet Boys do more of the latter, further consolidating and refining some of the lushest harmonic pop any male vocal group has ever offered. Oh, there’s a touch of old-style “theme” here and there. In “Larger Than Life,” the boys actually compliment their fans by seeing them as the icons; the very big, very orchestral, very American “The Perfect Fan” salutes family and motherhood (and even pulls in the Tates Creek High School Choir of Lexington) but keeps it all in the easy-to-understand language of idol and consumer.

What Millennium banks on is the kind of musical rush-undisturbed by text or personal style-that Mr. Martin knows will come out when those kind-of-Spanish-but-kind-of-not acoustic guitars stream around a pretty melody, as on “I Want It That Way,” the current single. Or when rhythms and real strings get at least as hot as a Mediterranean afternoon sun in July, as on “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” On “It’s Gotta Be You,” the musical logos-that bass again, but voiced higher-compete with a dynamite Backstreet vocal loop that chants “Baby, baby, it’s the way you make me, kinda-make-me-go-crazy,” effecting an excellent post-Bach counterpoint. Mr. Lange himself shows up to produce “I Need You Tonight,” a version of “Let’s Make a Night to Remember,” the hot do-me song he helped Bryan Adams make in 1996. The Backstreet Boys restrain themselves, though; they never flatly suggest to the girl, as Mr. Adams did, “let’s make out.”

But let’s leave the post-postmodern and get back to the merely postmodern. Listening to Millennium , you might legitimately wonder: Is there a Robbie Williams in this group? Mr. Williams, who contends he’s still young on his new solo outing, The Ego Has Landed (Capitol), a compilation of his previous British albums, sang into the mid-90′s with Take That, the now-dissolved English version of Backstreet that mostly failed to excite Americans. Running off and reinventing himself as a literate soccer lad, Mr. Williams now records white soul songs about the psychological aftermath of breaking up (“No Regrets”), occasionally doing the same thing with a rockier twist (“Win Some Lose Some”). He has a somewhat high voice full of idiosyncrasy and delight. Mr. Williams can deliver lines as ineffectual as “Your cool suburban sun …” and wind out the word “cool” like a Ferrari driver reveling in the sound of his own engine. He and his co-writer and producer Guy Chambers rewrite knowing little bits of David Bowie, New Order, Elton John, even a 70′s band like Mott the Hoople. So, is he original? (Who cares.)

As it happens, Mr. Williams has a tune, a tremendous one, entitled “Millennium.” Whereas the Backstreet Boys are usually careful not to muddy their music with a point of view, Mr. Williams sings about trying to get on in an era that everyone realizes is often full of shit. His idea of cultural hope is to score his big little tune with a glorious orchestral flourish written by John Barry for a 60′s James Bond film. At his best, Mr. Williams is a great pop artist. Either that, or he’s just another bright 25-year-old.