There was a time when Years & Years could have been considered an indie band. That may be busting the term ‘independent’ at the seems, but the Olly Alexander fronted project was certainly not a product of the labels.
Years & Years had a distinct voice in those early days. This came both literally, in the unique and supple vox of Alexander, and more abstractly in their composition. Pop songs with clout, and writing with nuance.
Communion their debut LP muddled that sound, on an album that capitulated somewhat to chart trends. Palo Santo – their much anticipated follow up – is a full exploration of the sounds and ideas that brought the band together.
Communion focused on a night out: going out, hooking up, staggering home, staying the night, and the hungover aftermath. Palo Santo doubles down on the dance-pop and roots our story to the dancefloor; and a welcome extraction it proves to be.
The album is full of fully cranked electropop shakers on a level of shamelessness not seen since CHVRCHES’ ‘Clearest Blue’
Though ‘Sanctify’ opens the album in a sultry cloud of incense, a R&B jam about straight baiting, ‘Hallelujah’ is the real statement of intent. This lacks entirely the varnish and compromises of chart pop, giving the tune a welcome authenticity.
Conceptually Palo Santo may not exactly be 2112. The backdrop of an android world employing humans as entertainment is set-dressing and nothing more. It’s also a goof: Palo Santo translates to ‘Holy wood’. In case you were wondering where Olly’s mind was at during the creative process.
Ultimately the album does not need a conceit to hold it together, though the cyberpunk aesthetic will make for some inventive visuals and stage design come the tour cycle. Palo Santo is tonally harmonious, diving deeper into the contradictions that have always fascinated Alexander: love and danger, lust and fear. Of these he can wax lyrical. Add to this Alexander’s well documented obsession with religion-as-homosexuality (Communion, ‘Take Shelter’, ‘Sanctify’, ‘Preacher’, ‘Worship’ etc).
Paradoxically the album’s one large mis-step is also the big hit. ‘If You’re Over Me’ soon degrades on repeat listens, the song’s grating synth ostinato and playground melody soon wearing out their welcome. It may be on the ascension in the Top 10, a slow-burner on AM radio, but the song is a real dip in quality.
Palo Santo is by turns euphoric and bitter, but almost every song is gilded by fantastic choruses, inventive synth and beats head-and-shoulders above their prior output. This is their first long play to really resonate, and one of the best pop albums this year.