NEW YORK (Billboard) - AJ McLean remembers the conversation well. Kevin Richardson was having doubts about his future in the Backstreet Boys, and one night in the dressing room after a 2005 show, he told his friends in the mega-selling boy band how he was feeling.
“There’s some things I need to do first, for me,” McLean recalled Richardson saying.
The group had been discussing “when we wanted to start recording again,” McLean said. “Everyone was ready, but that was the first time Kevin put it out in the atmosphere that he wasn’t.”
The Boys needed some time to digest Richardson’s news. In June 2006, he made the official statement that he was moving on to “pursue other interests.” Although all were supportive of Richardson’s decision, remaining Backstreet Boys McLean, Nick Carter, Howie Dorough and Brian Littrell were still left one man down. But according to McLean, replacing Richardson was never even an option. They turned down an offer to star in a reality show to find a new member, and opted against changing the group name to Backstreet. “This is a new band, but this is a brand, and it’s the Backstreet Boys,” McLean said.
Instead, the group resolved to make a new album as a quartet, and the result is “Unbreakable,” due October 30 via Jive. It’s a return to form of sorts for the band, with 13 songs of unmistakable Backstreet Boys-style group harmonies, upbeat dance numbers and hearts-on-their-sleeve midtempo ballads.
But how do the Backstreet Boys, the first, if not best, of the all-male pop groups to dominate the latter half of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, fit in among the roster of current hitmakers? The niche the group helped pioneer is slim, if not altogether nonexistent. Can they remain relevant to a new generation of consumers as well as to one-time fans who might have moved on?
“There are definitely some challenges, just because of some people who, especially in America, may look at the band” as just a boy band, said the group’s current manager, Jeff Kwatinetz. “But I think that some of (the boy band) characterizations are wrong. They’re singers, performers, songwriters.”
This particular transition began for the Backstreet Boys with the 2005 album “Never Gone,” released five years on from their chart-dominating pop glory days.
By that time, their boy band contemporaries had faded from the limelight, and their second acts were meeting with mixed results. Justin Timberlake found great solo success outside of ‘N Sync, but 98 Degrees fizzled as group member Nick Lachey hawked his solo album on an MTV reality show and became tabloid fodder for his marriage to Jessica Simpson.
The Backstreet Boys had also been mired in management changes, legal battles with longtime label Jive and various personal issues, from McLean’s drug addiction to Carter’s flop solo debut.
So the group went a new route for “Never Gone,” stepping away from slickly produced dance pop and taking a stab at the adult contemporary market with help from writers and producers like Max Martin, Mark Taylor, Billy Mann and John Shanks. First single “Incomplete” hit No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, but despite first-week U.S. sales of 291,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, “Never Gone” stalled. Sales to date are at 748,000 units, the lowest of the band’s career.
Carter feels the disjointed sound of “Never Gone” was the result of working with different collaborators on virtually every track. “(The album) was just like an experimental, get-back-into-the-game type of album,” he said, adding that a lot of the songs “just slacked.”
This relative lack of success stood in stark contrast to the Backstreet Boys’ track record.
Initially managed by Lou Pearlman (who helped spawn ‘N Sync but is now embroiled in embezzlement charges and allegations that he was a sexual predator) and Johnny Wright, the group first met phenomenal success overseas. Its 1996 self-titled debut sold more than 7.5 million copies internationally, and the 1997 follow-up, “Backstreet’s Back,” shifted 10.2 million units worldwide.
At a time when rock and hip-hop were dominating the charts, it took longer for the boys to break into the U.S. market. But the band’s 1997 U.S. self-titled debut eventually scored big in the States, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, selling 10.1 million and spawning the hit singles “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).”
For the next few years, the Backstreet Boys were unstoppable. “Millennium” (1999) sold a then-record-breaking 1.1 million copies in its first week of U.S. sales (a record later shattered by ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached,” which sold 2.4 million). It hit No. 1 in 25 countries, leading to worldwide sales of 21.6 million, according to Jive.
The following year’s “Black & Blue” did even better, shifting 1.59 million in its first week. But the nonstop pace was taking its toll.
“Everyone was at wit’s end,” McLean said. “It was just work, arguments, conflicts.”
Those problems seemed to multiply. A 2001 North American tour had to be postponed while McLean entered rehab, and 2002 saw a split with the group’s management at the Firm, where Kwatinetz is CEO, as well as a lawsuit against Jive parent Zomba for breach of contract and trademark infringement. (The case was settled amicably; McLean says the band’s relationship with the company has gotten “immensely better.”)
A hiatus was inevitable. Group members went their separate ways; Richardson starred in “Chicago” on Broadway, while McLean, Dorough and Littrell worked on solo efforts. Carter stayed with Jive to release his solo debut, “Now or Never,” which hit No. 17 on The Billboard 200 but has sold just 238,000 copies.
Although there was some speculation that the group had disbanded entirely, McLean insists that was never the case. “We kind of took a small break,” he said of the time off. “We needed a break, mind you — we were touring for pretty much nine years straight.”
Backstreet’s members found their way back together in 2003, when they surprised McLean on the set of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where he’d come to discuss his drug problem.
“I cried like a little girl,” McLean said.
And with the experimentalism of “Never Gone” out of their system, the group got back to the type of pop music that attracted such a huge fan base to begin with. With the new album, “we’ve proved we’re doing this for (the fans) and we’re doing this for us and because we love it so much,” McLean said.
In January, the group went on a writing trip with songwriter/producer Dan Muckala in Nashville for six weeks. “We wanted to have one consistent body of work that was cohesive,” Carter said of their time in the studio. While there, “a lot of cool, magical stuff happened.”
Carter says the group personally selected the album’s contributors, which include Rob Weiss, Shanks and Mann, who collaborated with Muckala on the song “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon.” JC Chasez of ‘N Sync fame wrote the track “Treat Me Right” with McLean, and first single “Inconsolable” was written and produced by Emanuel Kiriakou and co-written by Lindy Robbins and Jess Cates.
“Inconsolable” is a dramatic, piano-driven ballad reminiscent of past hit “Shape of My Heart,” while “Helpless When She Smiles” is a similar ballad with a mammoth-sized chorus. Elsewhere, “Panic” is a jittery electric dance number and “Treat Me Right” bounces along to a hand-clapping funky groove.
The final product “is great, classic Backstreet Boys, with obviously a little more grown-up sound and more mature lyrics,” McLean said, adding that the absence of Richardson is hardly noticeable in the sound mix, and the harmony parts sound as fresh as ever. “Everyone’s singing their butts off on this record. Everyone’s got leads across the board.”
Jive is working hard to get the Backstreet Boys in front of audiences again. The group began a two-week European promo tour October 9 and will be in Japan to launch the album there the week of October 23. In the States, performances are set for “Today,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
The radio picture is less certain.
“They face the same challenge that any of the bands that are more than 10 years old face, especially any pure pop act. And that is they struggle to appear relevant and get the radio support they need to have a hit,” analyst Guy Zapoleon said.
“Inconsolable” spent only two weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 86. International listeners have been more receptive; the track debuted at No. 15 in Japan and was a top 20 hit in Germany after just two weeks.
A worldwide tour will kick off the first quarter of 2008 in Japan and Asia and will carry Backstreet through 2009. McLean is continuing to work on his solo album on the side, a single for which he hopes to have ready by the end of February. Carter is also working on his next solo effort in addition to building the infrastructure of his new record label, Kaotic Records.
As for a new start without Richardson, McLean and Carter both say he is missed, and the door is wide open should he ever decide to return. As for whether he actually will come back, McLean remains hopeful: “I really think he’s going miss it. I really do. Some of the guys you could ask and they’d probably tell you the total opposite. Me, I really believe he may come back.”
And regardless of whether “Unbreakable” returns the group to a high level of visibility, the group is content with its place in the pop-music universe.
“We don’t have these huge, massive releases anymore,” Carter said. “Some people ask us, ‘You guys have another album?’ That’s kind of a cool place to be for the Backstreet Boys. In a sense, we’re very underground.”