Since the Backstreet Boys are hardly known for taking sides on issues beyond, you know, breakups (bad) and puppy love (good), we can only assume that the group's grand new social statement happened by accident.

For the erstwhile kings of bubblegum pop have presented a strong case against cloning, of all things, on their turgid new album, "Never Gone." After nearly five years of radio silence, Backstreet's back and on a serious power-ballad trip that strongly suggests Richard Marx as the Boys' answer to the ever-pressing question of "Who's your daddy?"

Frankly, we do not need one Richard Marx, let alone a bunch of Marxist clones. But life is funny like that.

Not that the Backstreet Boys are laughing; earnest as ever, they really, really want you to Take Them Seriously. And so they have, for the most part, dumped the prefabricated dance-pop and goofy boy-band shtick that served them so well previously and moved upmarket, demographically speaking, to a gentrified, grown-up neighborhood filled with the sound of bombastic, lighter-flicking pop-rock love songs.

The Backstreet Boys' stylistic transformation, from teeny-bopping boys to adult-contemporary men in the vein of Marx, Loaf, Speedwagon, et al., is heard immediately on "Never Gone." On the opening song and lead single, "Incomplete," the Boys fly through the traditional power-ballad checklist like bats out of hell (or, at least, like a post-millennial Styx). Piano! Strings! Raspy vocals! Jarring soft-LOUD dynamics! I-can't-go-on-without-you lyrics! Herculean chorus replete with crashing cymbals and crunchy, power-chord guitars!

Oh, the melodrama.

The new formula is strip-mined throughout the 12-song album, with only a few songs breaking the mold -- most notably, the breezy piano-pop of "Weird World" (written by and featuring Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik) and the layered funk-rock of "My Beautiful Woman."

Otherwise, "Never Gone" features so many soaring crescendos that you can't help but visualize celebratory balloon drops, confetti bursts and dove releases -- an odd thing for a recording dominated by bromidic woe-is-we lyrics. To wit: "My hands and knees are bruised / And now I'm crawling back to you." And: "Since I lost you / I lost myself." Or, better yet: "If I lose it all / There'll be nothing left to lose."

Did the Boys really need 22 songwriters to come up with this stuff? (Per the recording credits: Yes, absolutely.) And how many Backstreet Boys does it take to woo one woman, anyway? All five of them, apparently.

"Begging for a second chance / Are you going to let me in?" the quintet sings in the chorus of "Crawling Back to You." Ostensibly, it's one of the album's 10 relationship songs; but it may well be a metaphor for the Backstreet Boys' comeback attempt.

Much has happened since the release of the group's last studio album, "Black & Blue," in 2000.

A.J. McLean struggled with sobriety. Nick Carter was charged with driving under the influence -- and with dating Paris Hilton. Brian Littrell had a baby Backstreet boy. And side projects were all the rage, from Kevin Richardson's stint on Broadway and Howie Dorough's work on a CD in both English and Spanish (not yet released) to Carter's 2002 solo outing, "Now or Never." Carter, however, was shocked to discover that the public generally chose never: His CD didn't even sell a million copies in the States -- a major comedown after the high-flying success of Backstreet Boys, whose three studio albums sold a total of 35 million copies here and produced no fewer than a dozen Top 40 singles.

Even the group's own greatest-hits album, in 2001, was something of a flop, barely cracking the 1 million mark.

Just like that, the whole boy-band thing seemed to have withered and died.

And so the Backstreet Boys pushed off on a new journey. Or, they became the new Journey.

Whatever. Already, "Incomplete" has achieved hit-single status. And now, "Never Gone" is expected to debut at or very near the top of the Billboard chart.

Behold the eternal power of the power ballad.

The Backstreet Boys will perform at Nissan Pavilion on Aug. 6.

Nick Carter has had a busy if not productive few years since the Boys broke up.