Several weeks ago, driving home after a long day at work, i was switching through the stations on the radio, stopping at 106.7 lite-fm when i heard one of those songs that makes you wonder if a) you’ve heard it before or b) you’re just crazy for thinking a). well, it turns out that the answer was c) both a and b. the song was the backstreet boys’ “more than that,” their current single. i had heard the song before but i hadn’t really heard it.

the string-kissed “more than that” was one of the very small handful of songs i found salvageable on their black & blue album, a disc that has turned out to be a disappointment in every way imaginable. the most tragic thing about it was the sense that the backstreets weren’t content with just holding hands with your little sister any more; they wanted to neck with your big sis and do something tastefully adult with your mom as well. all the signs were there: the vintage rock n’ roll t’s; the stories of them frequenting strip clubs; appearances on howard stern; publicity shots of the band — greasy hair, goatees, bare chests — looking like punk rock hobos; and the kiss of death itself: self-penned songs. sure, ‘nsync had eclipsed their sales record, but it wasn’t about being popular anymore, it had become a quest for respect.

and so while “shape of my heart” was like a mechanical abba and the uptempo tracks made great use of max martin’s hair-metal-freestyle production, the rest of the album was drearily midtempo with songs about commitment and love (but not love), all to reflect the changes in the groups’ lives, that our backstreet boys were now men, some married, some pushing 30. lost in this haze of good intentions was the string-kissed “more than that,” a song whose overall goodness i recognized at first, but whose actual greatness eluded to me until i heard it stripped of one context and replaced with another, i.e. the playlist of adult contemporary radio. for those unfamiliar with adult contemporary radio, it’s a format from which you can expect a triple play of billy joel-little river band-celine dion; in the midst of such tracks, “more than that” is, as they say, a breath of fresh air, in contrast to their a.c. brethren, it sounds alive and vibrant. with its tight harmonies, a melody that’ll catch you off guard and a balmy arrangement, “more than that” is their best radio song in ages and so it’s a shame that, unlike “shape of my heart” (which at one time was played on top 40) and “the call” (which i’ve never heard on radio, period), it’s limited to one station.

with ‘nsync’s return imminent (whose “pop,” contrary to herr ewing’s opinion, is excellent), never have the bsb seemed so irrelevant, and yet in the end their abandonment of the t.r.l. nation may be the best thing they ever did: our parents are always going to want to listen to music that doesn’t make them feel quite so old. so if the backstreet boys have to hit on my mom, then they can at least do it with material as fine as “more than that,” a single that, however fleetingly, makes maturity sound like a good idea.