Boyz II Men - Collide (2014)

Boyz II Men
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Shawn Stockman, Nathan and Wanya Morris, and sometimes Michael McCary: these were the four voices of moody, dark, sometimes smoldering torch song R&B, with #1 tearjerker hits like "End of the Road" and come hither promises such as "I'll Make Love To You" that made them one of the best selling and charting boy bands of all times. That was then. On their 12th album in 23 years, the word for the day, kiddos, is “bright.” A major key festival of “up” music that with varying degrees of success tries to bridge the sounds of pop and soul, and is Boyz II Men’s most obvious attempt to chase a trend rather than set it. We know, we know. It’s hard out here for a vet, especially when those vets aren’t quite yet the age for a mid-life crisis. We get that. However, huge swaths of this album wouldn’t be out of place with a pop boy band like One Direction, Wanted, or even Boyz II Men’s old competitors, The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. That’s not to say Collide is bad.

Shawn Stockman, Nathan and Wanya Morris, and sometimes Michael McCary: these were the four voices of moody, dark, sometimes smoldering torch song R&B, with #1 tearjerker hits like "End of the Road" and come hither promises such as "I'll Make Love To You" that made them one of the best selling and charting boy bands of all times. That was then. On their 12th album in 23 years, the word for the day, kiddos, is “bright.” A major key festival of “up” music that with varying degrees of success tries to bridge the sounds of pop and soul, and is Boyz II Men’s most obvious attempt to chase a trend rather than set it. We know, we know. It’s hard out here for a vet, especially when those vets aren’t quite yet the age for a mid-life crisis. We get that. However, huge swaths of this album wouldn’t be out of place with a pop boy band like One Direction, Wanted, or even Boyz II Men’s old competitors, The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. That’s not to say Collide is bad. There is definitely an eye toward crafting catchy melodies and a relentless buoyancy that peps up a dreary day. There’s just not a lot of what was once called quartet R&B (or trio now in the case of Boyz) or smooth soul on this project, save a few tracks that remind us who Boyz II Men are when they aren’t chasing an audience that already views them as those old guys who had hits when I was in elementary school.

As was stated, there are a few songs that are signature Boyz II Men when the Boyz try their hands at a sophisticated mid-tempo groove. “Don’t Stop,” with The Jacksons’ early ‘80s funk groove and Nile Rodgers guitar licks that are both becoming new trademarks of grown folks music in this era, is also one of the best referential jams of a trend that would include Tank’s “You’re My Star” and Robin Thicke’s “Ooo La La” in feel.  Romantic and aggressive, “Believe Us” is a synthy urban soundscape that includes the kind of layered background harmonies that one expected on a Boyz album, but are often absent throughout. Interestingly enough, “Believe Us” is one of the few cuts that listeners can instantly tell that Wanya is singing lead, so close in tone and skill have Nathan Morris and Shawn Stockman grown to match their traditional song closer. The moody and defiant “Losing Sleep” is probably the most classic Boyz II Men cut (in that it could have slid very easily as the B-side on any of the first three Boyz II Men albums for Motown) and best utilizes the three tenors, especially on harmonies.

On all three songs a bass would’ve only deepened and sweetened the musical dynamics, which makes you wonder why Boyz never simply replaced Michael McCary, if only for their studio work. It’s especially pronounced on “Losing Sleep,” where you can practically hear all the places McCary would’ve fit. Six albums since his departure from Boyz II Men and his impact and voice are still missed. 

These three songs mentioned above represent the most trademark of the Boyz sound. Then there is everything else. There is a batch of sing-songy, jingly cuts that personify the overall soul pop at the beach approach to these proceedings. “Underwater” can probably soundtrack the happenings of a children’s playground, swinging and see-sawing to the beat of this bit of diabetes sweet confection. The same can be said for the light guitar-driven sunshine day that is “As Long As I’m With You,” which is the kind of cloying song serious music lovers hate instantly and inexplicably find themselves singing by the third hearing, the kind of Vitamin D shot that eventually and inexplicably goes on to win "Song of the Year" at the Grammys.

The breathlessly apologetic “Already Gone” is the kind of high-pitch tenor anthem that 98 Degrees would’ve had a field day with in the mid-90s. Being that both are on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” I suspect Shawn Stockman pilfered it from the Nick Lachey unpublished song collection. The punchy “Me Myself and I,” a title we can officially retire from the canon please, continues the rollicking good times with a number that essentially says “let’s have fun while we still can!” If I sound like a curmudgeon about these songs it’s not because they aren’t well produced or sung, far from it. They just feel like empty calorie boy band songs that belong to an act a generation younger than Boyz.

Some cuts do successfully bridge the mythical divide. The really, really big piano and percussion heavy power ballad “Diamond Eyes” does this with a pop song that would fit what John Legend and Emeli Sande have been doing lately to score hits (Think: "All of Me"). The cut even lyrically acknowledges that the Boyz are no longer spring chickens, albeit to the woman in question and the failed relationship that clearly is no longer enjoying a place in the sun. Late in the set there are two hidden gems in “Collide” and “So What.” The title track, which opens with Nathan crooning over a simple piano in sensitive guy heartbreak speak, gives way to the kind of doubling and harmony work that makes Boyz legends. Shawn takes more of the reins in “So What,” which has a very similar piano ballad set-up, but with decidedly less harmonic interplay between the fellows and a decidedly more alternative pop vibe. Not a bit of church or urbanity to be found on “So What,” but it still delivers.

Collide's whole foray is a younger, hipper, more synthetic and generic Boyz II Men, the injurious results of a collide between mature talent and label marketing expectations. If that’s what growing into men did for these boys, I’d rather they embrace their inner Peter Pan and go back to the more soulful boys who once stole our hearts with the best, most soulful harmonies in the game. Modestly recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson
          

 

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