Release Date: Jul 6, 2018
Record label: Interscope
'Palo Santo' literally translates to holy wood, which might give you a clue to where, thematically, things are heading for Years & Years on album two. It's preoccupied with sex. Specifically, lead singer and former DIY coverboy Olly Alexander's preoccupation is homoeroticism and queerness, as he bathes in sexually subversive waters. Album opener and lead single 'Sanctify' consecrates gay sex; it's an ode to the erotic entrapment of straight-identifying men, albeit with devilish and slimy early '00s R&B beats.
The development of Years & Years' music and aesthetics can be read as a mirror of singer Olly Alexander's personal trajectory: During first album Communion, he occupied the anonymous periphery of "Take Shelter", and was a sinister club voyeur in "Real". In "King", he sang of burgeoning submission while being physically manipulated by a swarm of dancers; his expressions betraying his uncertainty in the ambiguous hierarchies of the dance. Years & Years' second album Palo Santo presents Alexander as a commanding presence in the spaces that he once negotiated tentatively.
Years & Years' superb sophomore album, 2018's Palo Santo, is a dynamically realized production, rife with religious imagery and themes of sex, love, and devotion, all pulsing with a bright sense of dance club absolution. Jumping off from their BRIT Award-nominated debut, 2015's Communion, the trio of lead singer Olly Alexander and instrumentalists Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen have crafted an even more infectious collection of songs, often inspired by late-'80s and early-'90s R&B. Joining them this time out are a handful of talented producers including Kid Harpoon, Greg Kurstin, GRADES, and others.
It's no coincidence Years & Years' second album arrived on the eve of London's Pride weekend. Pride in sexuality is a recurring theme on Palo Santo, tying together a bold and adventurous new record which draws inspiration from reggaetón, Stevie Wonder-esque pop-soul, and 2000s R&B. Lead singer Olly Alexander has not hidden his sexuality in the past, but he was not as direct on their debut as he is here and this freedom leads to sharper, more insightful lyrics.
Palo Santo is supposedly inspired by the concept of a genderless dystopia populated by androids, but I wouldn't take that at face value. This is not a Muse record and any science fiction is thankfully kept to a bare minimum. Instead, the lyrical concerns of Years & Years' surprising and often outstanding second album will be familiar to any fan of modern pop.
As Pride month comes to an end, London Pride rolls around again, and straight celebrities prepare to pay lip service to a section of their fanbases, it becomes very noticeable how few unabashedly queer musicians there are in the UK pop scene. Enter Olly Alexander, the lead singer of Years & Years who has gradually become a leading LGBTQI+ activist through his involvement with Stonewall's No Bystanders campaign and his BBC3 documentary Growing Up Gay. These threads run through Years & Years' second album Palo Santo, nowhere more so than on opening song Sanctify.
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.
Chic's Nile Rodgers has said in interviews that one of his key songwriting rules is to have something interesting at the beginning to draw the listener in, a tactic described as "Don't bore us; get to the chorus." It's something that Years & Years could learn from. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with their intros or their verses, but because their choruses are such brilliantly catchy explosions of technicolour that's it's difficult to imagine that you'd want to listen to anything else. Remarkably, it's a trick they repeat song after song on 'Palo Santo,' the London trio's second album, and their astutely crafted synth-pop cements their place as Pet Shop Boys' spiritual successors.