The British trio moves beyond the tropical-house Top 40 of their debut on a theatrical, diverse sophomore album that finds frontman Olly Alexander blurring the boundaries between sacred and profane.
Images of spirituality and religion permeate the work of Years & Years. The title of the British trio's 2015 debut album was Communion. Those themes become even more prominent in tracks with names like “Sanctify,” “Hallelujah,” “Karma,” and “Preacher” on the sometimes bombastic, sometimes sensual follow-up, Palo Santo. (“Palo santo,” or “holy wood,” is an incense used in indigenous Inca culture to cast away evil spirits.) In most Western theologies, dancing is the devil’s work, and the thrill of shaking your blasphemous hips while invoking the Lord predates Madonna by centuries. But you can see why Years & Years, in particular, connect music with religious transcendence. For an artist like the trio’s principal songwriter, the energetic Olly Alexander, who’s gone from mild-mannered frontman to fledging queer icon in just a few years, pop isn’t a frivolous pastime—it’s a sacred experience.
Alexander’s lyrics have always dealt with the murky, complicated side of desire, a fascination that gives physical heft to Palo Santo’s spiritual imagery. “Sanctify,” the record’s lead single and opener, finds him mid-hookup with a man who professes to be heterosexual. “You don’t have to be straight with me/I see what’s underneath your mask,” Alexander chides, in an apt double entendre, as he asks the guy to “sanctify my body with pain.” The contrast between the quiet verses and wide-open pop chorus mimics the lovers’ conflicting emotions of shame and ecstasy. Alexander ladles on the drama with Timberlakian trills, his voice smooth and precise against icy synths. A welcome reinvention for Years & Years, the track departs from the tropical-house Top 40 they’re known for, moving toward a more theatrical and intense sound.
Palo Santo puts its best foot forward with “Sanctify,” and a handful of subsequent songs make for some of the most enjoyable music Years & Years have released thus far. Although it uses a somewhat predictable dancefloor-as-site-of-divine-communion metaphor, “Hallelujah” is so relentlessly upbeat that its sounds blast through the mundanity of its lyrics, reigning in the atmosphere of Ibiza beach-rave revelry just before it slides into gaudiness. With an intro lifted almost note-for-note from Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything,” “Karma” differentiates itself from typical Discover Weekly pap by taking inspiration from ’90s R&B girl groups instead of the sub-EDM vocoder pop many of Years & Years’ contemporaries peddle. At his best, Alexander exudes the youthful confidence of a kid perfecting his moonwalk in the bedroom mirror.
Unfortunately, while the front half of Palo Santo is packed with catchy tunes and genuine surprises, the album struggles to sustain its sense of wonder—or even structure. Communion was a scientifically balanced record, each of its songs similar enough to the others in tone and atmosphere to sustain a consistent mood. But “Hypnotised,” a ballad with lyrics like, “Just one look at you/My heart has been hypnotised,” meanders so aimlessly that the record never recovers. Even attempts to reintroduce dancefloor fodder feel strangely out of place in its wake. “If You’re Over Me,” a peculiar choice for a second single, uses a sing-song synth line to trace a picture of redemption in the midst of a failed relationship. The songs that follow blur together like the by-the-numbers pop Years & Years so eloquently challenge on tracks like “Karma.”
Palo Santo is a promising sophomore album because it evolves past the sound of the band’s debut. But at its low points, the record lacks the bite to drive home the razor’s-edge duality of sacred and profane that Alexander seems to thrive on. Eventually, themes of salvation, damnation, and enraptured revelation become mired in electropop clichés that are beneath the band’s talent. At their best, Years & Years are capable of godlike sublimity. To take up permanent residence in the heavens, all they need to do is exorcise a few colorless spirits.