Album Review: Years & Years – Palo Santo

palo santo years years

Years & Years bigger, bolder and more confident on sophomore album
Years & Years shot to fame at the end of 2014 when they were announced as one of the next big things in the pop world. They fulfilled the promise with number 1 hit ‘King’ and debut album Communion which topped the charts. The British three piece disappeared for a while to work on new material and returned earlier this year with single ‘Sanctify’, a pulsing pop tune in which front man Olly Alexander opens up about an affair with a straight man, while channeling Britney Spears in ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’. The commercial performance was slightly disappointing, but don’t write Years & Years off just yet. Second single ‘If You’re Over Me’ proved to be more radiofriendly and is still climbing the UK charts, being close to top 5 at the time of writing. Olly, Emre and Mikey now released the full album, titled Palo Santo.

The title of the album refers to holy wood, while also being the name of a dystopian society run by cyborgs who seek to experience emotions through human performances. This concept behind the album is explored in the short video the band released at the same time as the album. Olly presents himself sensually dancing for most of it, unapologetic, bold and comfortable in his own skin. Visually, Olly does not share the spotlight with his band mates anymore and for the album the singer worked with hit writers like Greg Kurstin, Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter which makes it seem like Emre and Mikey were less involved this time. However, the unique sound that the guys carved out on their debut album, with light electronic arrangements and infectious hooks, is honored, but taken much further this time, both in terms of production and lyrics.

While Olly has never been hiding his homosexuality in his lyrics, he is more explicit this time around, talking about affairs with straight guys (‘Sanctify’) and showing sexual vulnerability after a break up with sentences like “Do I look good in this position, just like him?” on the dark yet seductive title track. The more stripped down ‘Hypnotized’ is a gorgeous ballad that vividly describes the feeling of falling head over heals for someone. At the same time, Alexander does not shy away from airing his dirty laundry either. ‘Lucky Escape’ is a moody ballad in which he hits back at an ex lover, showing his own insecurities at the same time: “From all of the pictures I’ve seen of the two of you, Is he a model? I’m not surprised, you’re so vain.” He is the first to admit his own flaws in his lyrics throughout the album, which makes it a story about making mistakes, owning them and moving on. A story on what it is like to be human, as he explained it himself in interviews.

In terms of production, Years & Years dare to take things steps further than on their debut, that was described as slightly rough around the edges by some. The uptempo tunes properly go off and never ever do they forget to bring the melodies. I am not exaggerating when I say every single chorus on here are worthy of becoming a radio hit in some form or another. ‘All For You’ is the prime example with a production that will fully prevent you from sitting still while the chorus serves hooks for years (& years). ‘Rendezvous’, in which Olly seems to tell off a love interest for ‘objectifying’ him as a ‘physical rendezvous’, is one of the more experimental tracks with deep bass, soaring synths and ear catching vocal effects, of course not without an undeniable chorus.

Above all, Palo Santo is a record that overflows with love for pop music. Olly Alexander is a big pop fan and he pays tribute to his inspirations. ‘Hallelujah’ is 2018’s answer to their biggest hit ‘King’ that at the same time seems influenced by late 80s Michael Jackson. It will be a missed opportunity if this does not become a single at some point. Album closer ‘Up In Flames’ takes the 80s influence even further with a Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson crossover rooted in 2018’s electro pop. The delicious deep synths on ‘Karma’ are the only element giving away that this was not a long lost early noughties track by an R&B star like Blu Cantrell. He channels his inner 90s George Michael on the outstanding pop chorus big pop chorus of ‘Preacher’. Hell, he even references Nelly Furtado’s hit ‘Promiscuous’ (‘Promiscuous boy, be ashamed’) on the above mentioned ‘Lucky Escape’.

Olly Alexander seems to have taken the sounds that inspired him throughout his life, blended them into the sound of Years & Years 2.0, while also convincingly telling his personal story. Sometimes an album as good as this, needs an obvious radiofriendly tune like ‘If You’re Over Me’ to sell it to the masses. I for one hope it works, because Palo Santo, one of the most consistent and full fledged pop albums of the year, sure should not fly under the radar.

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