Although I certainly have a soft spot for pop music, I’ve never been much of a Backstreet Boys fan. Even in their heyday, their music was pretty mediocre. It didn’t help that, after BSB resuscitated boy band fever in the mid-nineties, *Nsync came along and beat the stuffing out of them. However, you’ve got to give Howie, A.J., Nick and Brian props for their persistence. While *Nsync and 98 Degrees ran for the nearest exits the second that their musical style became passe, Backstreet’s hung around all these years. Granted, they haven’t been anywhere near as successful, but it’s a credit to them that they’re still in the industry making music. “This is Us” is their sixth American studio album, and after a couple of albums of the group going the adult contemporary/soft rock route, it finds BSB returning to dance/pop with a vengeance, armed with today’s hottest producers, tons of synthesizers, and even some of that dreaded Auto-tune.

“This is Us” makes a valiant attempt to capture the heavily synthesized pop sound that’s so in vogue these days. This is probably due to a cast of writers and producers that include RedOne (who’s helmed GaGa’s hits), Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic) and Jim Jonsin (who produced “Lollipop” for Lil Wayne). Unfortunately, that results in very little that sticks to the ribs. Part of that problem is due to the songwriting-memorable hooks are very hard to come by here, unlike back in the day when Max Martin and his team of writers and producers were able to come up with hooky, hummable lyrics. Even though Martin returns to the fold for one song (the fairly anonymous “Bigger”), his appearance doesn’t take away from the fact that, despite the caffeinated tempos, this album is relatively boring. Track after track of generic love (and anti-love) songs, with the only exception being the uncharacteristically horny “P.D.A.”, in which the fellas sing about being out in public with their “hands all on your booty”. While it’s certainly ear-catching, the guys sound like they’re trying too hard here, and come across as dirty old men in the process.

Then there’s an issue that’s always plagued the Backstreet Boys. These dudes are almost totally anonymous as singers. While Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez were blessed with fantastic and unique voices, and Britney Spears’ voice is so computer-manipulated that it stands out, these guys sound totally beige. It’s not that they can’t sing or anything, just that there’s no real character or personality to their singing.

While you’ve got to give BSB a little credit for not indulging their soppy ballad instincts on “This is Us”, it’s hard not to notice that the songs get better when the tempo slows a little bit. The two best songs on the album are the smooth groover “She’s a Dream” and album closer “Undone”. The former song has a pleasant, relaxed vibe with smooth harmonies that cancel out the inane lyrics (which are about how cool it is to flaunt your celebrity in front of your girl). It’s hard to stomach that this song was co-written and co-produced by (gulp) T-Pain. The latter song has hushed, dramatic harmonies as well as a smattering of real instruments. I have rarely been as happy to hear a guitar or piano in my life!

I can’t really say that I’m disappointed by “This is Us”…because I really wasn’t expecting much. The whole Nineties boy-band thing was never really my bag, and although BSB were able to pull some great singles out of their collective hat, they’ve certainly never made an album that was better than average. They’ll never be unique or distinctive singers, and today’s crop of popular songwriters and producers (excepting a couple like Ne-Yo) don’t really lend themselves to strong lyrics or melodies. So, what you end up with is basically the sound of a group that was never that good in the first place spinning their wheels. Even if you’re a fan, you’d probably still be best served keeping your ten bucks in your pocket.