Pop music is currently carving a particularly fascinating era, leaving a layered and relevant mark on the second half of the 2010s. Post-#MeToo, the likes of Christine and the Queens and Janelle Monáe are gloriously pushing boundaries of exploring female sexuality in song. Yet whilst the definition of male sexuality is being scrutinised more than ever, few artists representing such themes are succeeding in becoming as great of a part of the mainstream as much as Years & Years.
Already the world of pop culture is a prouder scene than it was in 2015 as Years & Years released their hugely successful debut Communion. Three years later, music from the likes of Hayley Kiyoko has led to this year being dubbed as “twenty gay-teen” and Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye has taken the world by storm – and even led to the Fab 5 introducing Years & Years’ Biggest Weekend set in Swansea back in May.
Already the world of pop culture is a prouder scene than it was in 2015
Despite Communion’s allusions to frontman Olly Alexander’s sexuality, this time round there are no restrictions on Palo Santo. Since the release of the group’s debut, Alexander has promoted anti-LGBT bullying initiatives in various interviews and last year presented a BBC Three documentary wherein he put the spotlight on the links between being gay and the development of mental health disorders.
On the opening track of the new record, ‘Sanctify’’s lyrics paint a dark-pop picture of a man struggling to express his sexuality and identify as anything other than straight whilst Alexander flits between helping him to explore himself whilst also leading him to “sanctify my sins”. It’s a single which is more vocally driven and one which took more time to take off than the electro-percussive subsequent ‘If You’re Over Me’, but one whose lyrics reminded listeners of Years & Years’ place in pop and how they’re helping a generation to grow up with queer relationships and desires in the mainstream music scene.
With more contemporary instrumentals from Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, Palo Santo is a record which becomes more infectious with each listen and has the charm of Communion’s energy with ‘Rendezvous’ among the tracks likely to be key components of live sets from the group this summer. Perhaps highlighted best on the likes of ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Karma’ and ‘Preacher’, it’s an album studded with sleek and shimmering rhythms and soaring vocals which would please fans of BØRNS.
Alexander has explained that Palo Santo is a genderless dystopian society run by androids who are fascinated with humans, and the strong religious imagery throughout the record could be seen to parallel the theme of sexuality which runs throughout.
As with the first record from Years & Years, there are still vulnerable moments from Alexander which echo the wistful electronic of Pet Shop Boys with their diary-excerpt intimacy in the lyrics on tracks ‘Here’ and ‘Hypnotised’, with the latter first unknowingly shown in Baz Luhrmann’s short film for H&M last autumn. The track deals with the initial head-over-heels consumption of the initial stage of a new relationship and finds the vocalist concluding that “my heart has been hypnotised”.
There are also moments of confrontation elsewhere on the album – ‘Lucky Escape’ starts sweetly but sees Alexander reflecting on the breakdown of a relationship and his ex’s new partner, as “you’re so deluded, you’re such a fake, and now you got somebody else to manipulate”.
Years & Years are back…setting a glorious, unapologetic example for artists to come in the future
One of the album’s best numbers however stars only at the end of the deluxe edition. ‘Up in Flames’ features 80s-style drum machine beats and is arguably one of the tracks best suited for clubs and gig encores.
Palo Santo certainly does not fail to deliver after a huge social media promotion which directly messaged fans via Facebook and simply put, the album is a must for the summer and so perfectly suited for the period it’s been released into. Communion was the fastest-selling debut of a UK signed band in 2015, and it’s likely that Palo Santo will leave a similarly impressive mark. Years & Years are back, leading the way for more visibly queer artists, and setting a glorious, unapologetic example for artists to come in the future.