Years & Years: Palo Santo review – sex, sin and electropop salvation

London-based trio’s nimble new album expands their ambitions in adrenaline-filled songs of heartbreak smothered with self-destruction

On the cusp of writing Years & Years’ second album, frontman Olly Alexander asked himself: what do we expect a male pop star to do these days? The answer had certainly changed since the trio released their debut Communion in 2015. Post-#MeToo, male pop sexuality is more scrutinised than ever and the sleek, kaleidoscopic dance pop that made Years & Years’ name has become the preserve of an overpopulated factory-line process. Despite Years & Years’ past glories (winning the BBC Sound of 2015, a No 1 album and single with King), their determination to do things themselves and foreground their identity makes them – depressingly – something of a rarity.

The artwork for Palo Santo.
Album artwork for Palo Santo. Photograph: Publicity image

As Alexander contemplated the issue, label Polydor were advising him to take the easy route: guest on some dance hits, buoy the band’s profile, play the Spotify game. He refused and, with Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, produced a second album that is, at least on the surface, the antithesis of streams-down-easy pop. There is a loose concept about overworked cyborg performers and numb human observers that sounds suspiciously like fame malaise but thankfully doesn’t permeate the album itself, which is named Palo Santo after a wood used in spiritual cleansing rituals. If Communion was dismissed by some critics for being unoriginal – a fair comment on its aesthetic, though not the unique cultural position they occupied, thanks to Alexander’s LGBTQ and mental health advocacy – then Palo Santo reveals a band determined to stand out.

Palo Santo’s first two singles seemed to illustrate the battle between Years & Years and the music industry. The ambitious Sanctify paired shadowy verses with a vaulting chorus, in which Alexander sketched his assignations with an apparently straight man in complex shades of sin and salvation – how jarring it feels to be treated like a transgression by someone who requires a benevolent touch. Its austere drama and transparent lyrics about gay sex were thrilling – Alexander called it a “Trojan horse”, though it didn’t quite breach pop’s Troy, stalling at No 25. Meanwhile, on If You’re Over Me, an acidic rejoinder to a flip-flopping ex-boyfriend clashes with a dolly mixture-sweet synth hook and skipping-rope chant chorus. It’s Years & Years at their most commercially efficient: maddeningly sweet yet sneakily scathing, currently at No 6 and rising.

Years & Years: If You’re Over Me – video

In fairness, those two songs represent Palo Santo at its most polarised: only Preacher matches the untempered giddiness ofIf You’re Over Me, as open-hearted and guileless as something off the Greatest Showman OST, and one of the album’s weaker spots. There are further outliers in the ballads. Unlike the earnest piano laments on Communion that earned Years & Years comparisons to Sam Smith, they feel more like interludes: dark-night-of-the-soul questions aired in glowing fogs as lonely and blue as if Alexander were singing from the depths of the sea. These strange, beautiful pauses contribute to a stronger sense of individuality, both in the sound of Palo Santo and its story.

And for the most part, the band’s expanded ambitions – closer to the baroque seductions of Perfume Genius and Pet Shop Boys than Top 40 pop – dovetail seamlessly with their natural affinity for playing Zedd and Calvin Harris at their own game. Palo Santo packs a deeper emotional resonance than Communion, which blurred its high emotional stakes beneath a breezy whirl. While Hallelujah is typically heavy on religious imagery, its high-adrenaline house and noticeably tougher beat is precisely as nimble as a song about the euphoria of dancing and shagging away heartbreak should be. Nor does its classic sound forsake originality: Alexander’s electrified gasps contrast with a lusty bass slur that seems to slow time, approximating those stunned moments of drunkenness when the dancefloor stops spinning and swims. The sharp shuffle and elegant kisses of violin on Karma – a song about trying good fortune on for size – lend it a gorgeous, flirtatious warmth. And the title track sustains mystic grandeur as Alexander sings about smothering pain with pleasure at its most self-destructive.

If Alexander did spend much time considering current expectations around male pop, Palo Santo makes it apparent that he wasted little time actually heeding them. While there are satisfyingly cutting songs about lying exes (“you’re so deluded, you’re such a fake, and now you’ve got somebody else to manipulate” being a choice example), he’s endlessly sharp and tender on understanding the motivations behind using a lover, refashioning religion’s stark language of judgment and sin (all preachers, demons and salvation) as matters of human nature.

This empathetic outlook and refusal to embrace reductive ideas of good and bad is a tonic during an era in which moral didacticism has worryingly infiltrated pop culture. It’s probably not what anyone expects a male pop star to do in 2018. But listening to the astute, convincingly ambitious Palo Santo, you wish more of them would.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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