Dave Karger
May 23, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s just seven weeks before the release of their new record, so on this late-April afternoon in Los Angeles, the Backstreet Boys are busy with the typical 11th-hour t-crossing: inspecting the proposed CD cover photo, tweaking their brutal publicity schedule, and scribbling thank-yous for the liner notes. Oh, and one other thing: They’re still recording the album.

In the musical equivalent of a last-minute reshoot, the five group members — Nick Carter, 25; AJ McLean, 27; Brian Littrell, 30; Howie Dorough, 31; and Kevin Richardson, 33 — are hurriedly laying down three final tracks for Never Gone, their first new release since 2000’s Black & Blue. ”In a perfect world,” says Dorough, ”we would’ve had this already packaged and done, and maybe all taken a week or two vacation.”

But that would have been uncharacteristic for the Backstreet Boys, who seem to have courted drama throughout their career. Since forming in Florida in 1993, the quintet has seen tremendous success combined with seemingly endless legal battles with their management companies and label, Jive Records. Their recent history has been just as tumultuous: In July 2001, McLean entered alcohol rehab, prompting a group sabbatical. The following year, Carter broke from the fold to release Now or Never, a poorly received rock record that led to a lawsuit between the Boys and Jive (since settled) and caused a rift between Carter and the rest of the group. Another blow: It languished in the shadows of Justin Timberlake’s solo success. After firing their managers at powerhouse the Firm, the Boys reunited in late 2003 on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show and then reteamed with Johnny Wright, who helped guide them in the early days (and whom they sued to sever their partnership in 1998). ”We’re not naive teenagers anymore,” says Littrell of their new attitude. ”We’re full-grown men, and we want to be able to take control of our environment.”

Recording Never Gone, due in stores June 14, began early last year when the Boys spent time in the studio with R&B producers the Underdogs (Tyrese). But early sessions — including one extraordinarily misguided attempt at Limp Bizkit-style rap — failed to galvanize the group, whose conflicted thoughts then turned to their old-time hitmaker Max Martin, the Swedish genius responsible for ”I Want It That Way” as well as career-making singles for ‘N Sync and Britney Spears. ”After all the other artists that he worked with,” explains Dorough, ”the whole pop sound that he created with us got so played out.” The reluctance was mutual: ”Sometimes you have to think about letting people move on,” says Martin, who co-wrote and produced Kelly Clarkson’s current smash ”Since U Been Gone.” ”I felt that at first: ‘Maybe they should try to work with someone else.”’

But when BMG chairman and CEO Clive Davis heard a Martin demo called ”Climbing the Walls” (which the songwriter initially intended for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack), he pegged it as the perfect Backstreet song, and the relationship was renewed. In all, Martin ended up lending a hand on four of Never Gone‘s 12 tracks, including one of the late-breaking recordings, ”Just Want You to Know.” ”Basically, the idea is to do ‘I Want It That Way’ with a little distortion,” says Martin. ”And not try to be something that they’re not.”

The resulting sound, while instantly catchy, is quite different from Backstreet’s late-’90s synthesized pop. ”My worry for us when I fall asleep at night is failure,” says McLean, whose vice of choice these days is apple tobacco inhaled from a hookah pipe. ”We’re experimenting, and our fans that have grown with us hopefully haven’t grown apart from us.”

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