'Step By Step'
The record leads off with the title track and first single, “Step By Step”. It’s an urgent declaration of intent backed by the sophisticated sound of a string section that helped make this effort sound more grown up. It was nominated for the Juno Award for International Single of the Year and became the group’s biggest-selling hit single of all time.
This was the album’s third single, released on July 26, 1990. "Tonight" opens with flamenco guitar, then piano, then a full orchestra of synth sounds. There are Beatles-esque harmonies and punctuation from a French horn that is very “Penny Lane”. Then there’s a harpsichord solo like the one in “In My Life”. There are also tempo changes and an Abba-esque bass transition in the chorus. So a lot is going on musically and it’s all very evocative. Then the lyrics are an irresistible coded callback to fans that reference their previous hits: “Remember when we said, girl, / Please don't go and how I'd be loving you forever / Taught you 'bout hanging tough / as long as you got the right stuff”. The lyrics are where you can really see that these guys are not the Beatles. “See the girls with the curls in their hair / The buttons and the pins and the loud fanfares” — this is a plug for merchandise, no? And then: “Remember when we traveled 'round the world /
We met a lot of people and girls”. Sure, girls are people, but we’ll forgive this lyrical nonsense because this is such a bright and happy jam.
'Baby, I Believe In You'
This song is funky. You can tell by the waka chicka porno bass that opens up this sucker. And more strings. If you’re just going to read that these songs feature strings and not listen to these songs, then 1. You’re doing yourself a disservice; and 2. We better describe these strings better. These are not the “Yesterday” strings carefully applied by Beatles’ producer George Martin. This is not “As Time Goes By”, by the Stones. These are Barry White disco strings. When the verse gets underway, it’s an earnest Jordan love song. “Baby, I believe in you / And every little thing you do / Every time we kiss / It always feels like this”. Then get ready for the big sax solo. There are lots of instrumental breaks in this piece, considering this is a vocal group. This is all Jordan til the rest of the guys come in for some harmonies on the outro.
'Call It What You Want'
Funky bass! Drum machine! Despite this, this is not a good song. It sounds unfinished. It sounds like a first draft. It sounds like a garbagey cover. Maybe that’s because we’re more familiar with the “C&C Pump It Up Remix”, which is fire. It’s got a rap intro by Freedom Williams from C&C Music Factory, the same disco strings as Madonna’s “Vogue”, and it samples James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. Save yourself 4:10 and skip the album version in favour of the remix, which appeared on the group's 1990 hits compilation, ‘No More Games/The Remix Album’. It still sounds fresh.
'Let’s Try It Again'
This is a slow song. It kind of plods along among huge romantic bouquets of strings. Danny sings the verse and his (perfectly capable) voice is put to shame when Jordan arrives on the chorus with his magical falsetto. It’s the fourth and final single from the album.
There’s a lot going on here production-wise and none of it is great so we’re going to focus on the strong vocal performances — wait, did he just sing “Happy birthday to you / You're so young / Age is just a number”? *coffee mug slides out of hand, smashes on patio* No, we checked — he actually sings, “You're still young” Okay. Okay, everyone. Settle down. This song commits a lot of crimes musically (crass commercialism, unoriginal, too many synthesizer doodads) but the lyrics are only offensive in their blandness. But, look, you know what? The guys sound great here. And it would be magical to be a preteen fan in the crowd on your birthday when they broke into this track. Their massively successful Coke-sponsored “Magic Summer” tour touched down in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg in 1990. It was a stadium tour, so statistically, hecka people and girls in the crowd would be celebrating a birthday. It’s actually pretty nice.
This is one of the stronger tracks on the album. The guys are rapping about their popularity and staying power, and also asking people to stop being mean and making fun of them. This was pre-gangsta rap. In hindsight (hindhearing?) it sounds like Christian rap. It’s so clean and earnest. It’s too corny for Disney teen fare. And yet the guys are in a groove here. It’s catchy. This is a throwback pic from 1985 when a 12-year-old Joey had just joined the group. Look how small!
'Time Is On Our Side'
Here is another slow song. This was before MTV Unplugged and it’s weird that one of the slow songs doesn’t have an acoustic guitar. There is nothing acoustic on this entire album. It’s written in an entirely synthesized language. This song is charming. Great harmonies. The production is over the top (Strings. More strings. Digital strings. All of them.) but the song’s appeal is obvious. The group's appeal was obvious, too, which is how they locked down the 1991 Super Bowl halftime show.
‘Where Do I Go from Here?’
This contemplative, vocal-forward track is Joey’s time to shine. He’s not just singing the words, he’s performing them, he’s selling them. You believe that he doesn’t know where to go. In the course of our research, we uncovered a specific vein of fan fiction dedicated to this song and its singer. Examples can be found here.
‘Stay with Me Baby’
ALERT: Nope. This is bad. Fast forward. Donnie sings this whole reggae mess in an impersonation of Jamaican patois. It’s worse than that time Rob Ford did it, because this song declares, unironically, “We be jammin’”. It's a hard cringe. Get out now while you still can.
This song might be terrible, but Donnie isn’t. This whole wildly successful group was built around him. He was the first member. He helped build this phenomenon from the ground up, then he turned around and gave his brother Marky Mark a big hand up. They’re both natural performers and their long careers are a testament to that. This 1989 photo shows Donnie’s substantial rat tail, and Danny’s rat tail, as well.
We’re going to call out this pleading, mid-tempo love song for a crime committed in too many of the songs on this record, the crime of over-rhyming: “All I asked was for your hand / Love was in demand / How was I to understand / Then you told me how you feel / It was so unreal / Guess it's time for me to reveal / The way I feel”. No. Stop. There’s no rhyme scheme there. There’s just a bunch of rhymes until rhymes run out and then they rhyme a bunch more on another word. Joey and Jordan didn’t write it, they just sang it. And they did a smoking hot job of that. How could you stay mad at a face like Jordan’s?
'Never Gonna Fall in Love Again'
Danny delivers a forceful and confident vocal on this album closer. Does he rap? Yes. And as far as boy-band rapping goes, it’s okay. Maybe Danny is able to convincingly deliver this ode to heartbreak because of his breakup with Halle Berry, whom he dated in 1989. We bet he got over it step by step. We totally can’t get over it though.