November 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

When the history of teen pop is written, this will be seen as the year of the New Audacity. ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached was ridiculously overblown, but the quintet’s attempts at R&B and sci-fi concept fiestas did have a certain daring, and Britney Spears’ take on ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was equally brazen. At the very least, it was fascinating to watch these acts break out of their expertly tailored wardrobes, even if they did so without busting too many seams.

In this scenario, the Backstreet Boys’ new single, ”Shape of My Heart,” is especially curious. Compared to the brassy moves made by their peers, this predictable ballad is safer than their new, hirsute image. As such, it’s also an unfortunate preview of their third album, Black & Blue. Other than Hanson, the Backstreeters are responsible for the few pieces of aural magic to emerge from the teen boom — musical massages like ”Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and ”I Want It That Way.” But with ‘N Sync hot on their heels, they needed to solidify their creative dominance. Instead, Black & Blue merely maintains a holding pattern, recycling their past and doing little to establish a firm future.

Although they haven’t commented on it, it’s possible that the album title is a nod not to any closet S&M tendencies but to their two musical sides: ”black” (as in the R&B inflections of their upbeat tracks) and ”blue” (their inclination toward mushy crooning). For the former category, the Boys and their multitude of producers and songwriting partners have come up with production numbers that feel belabored and hammy. ”The Call” is educational — how to cheat on your mate by telling her your cell-phone battery’s low! — but it also has the blowsy feel of a rejected show tune. Another clunky foot-stomper, ”Everyone,” continues the self-congratulatory tradition of their earlier ”We’ve Got It Goin’ On” and ”Larger Than Life,” songs in which they celebrate themselves and the power of their audience. But do their fans really want to hear them whine in that song that ”We’ve been inside the circus/We’ve took the pleasure with the pain”? In the deepest irony, these tracks, like the petulant ”Get Another Boyfriend,” uncannily mimic the R&B moves on the latest album by their archrivals, ‘N Sync.

In these dance-pop tracks, the group present themselves as bad boys on the prowl who either regret it (”The Call”) or don’t (”Get Another Boyfriend”). But as they grow older — and, in the case of Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell, settle down to married life — these stances are beginning to sound disingenuous. The Boys are much less affected when singing ballads, when they’re the submissive, sensitive male who will do anything to salvage a relationship and apologize for his misdeeds. But even in this category, they stumble. ”Time” (a collaboration with Babyface) is piffle, and ”I Promise You (With Everything I Am)” and ”Yes I Will” appear to be vying in a contest for Next Big Wedding Song. The latter’s lyrics, like ”The way you make me feel inside/You complete me, girl,” are a succession of hackneyed groaners; you’d think they could afford better. To glean moments of the aural gratification we expect from them, one has to dig deep to find the graceful way their voices blend on the chorus of ”More Than That,” the spunky way they vault into ”Not for Me,” the suave manner in which they engage in their trademark vocal swapping in ”Yes I Will.”

As they croon these forlorn laments, the Boys mature into Backstreet Men before our ears. In their case, that means supper-club balladeers, hardly the most enthralling of directions. And if we all agree that the Backstreeters have been the best of the pop parade, one has to wonder what lies ahead for boy bands overall. Black & Blue mostly leaves you with the somber impression that in the future, the Backstreet Boys are in for a bruising. C

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