Sunday 8 July 2018

Years & Years - Palo Santo

Years & Years - Palo Santo

In the years since the release of debut album 'Communion', it's fair to say that Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander has become something of a gay icon. Now in 2018, in a year of albums from queer LGBT artists, Alexander is Britain's leading man, pushing the boundaries of what is typically acceptable in mainstream music. It's perhaps for this reason that follow up album 'Palo Santo' is so overtly queer.

As with the group's previous record, 90s dance beats proliferate: euphoric production from pop wizards like Greg Kurstin, Kid Harpoon and Steve Mac that belies the lyrical sincerity. Up In Flames for instance is pure 90s techno house, while All For You is a fizzing pop banger about the end of a relationship due to gay shame. Melodically 'Palo Santo' isn't quite as strong as their best work (King, Desire), but it's undoubtedly a more complete album. Perhaps that's due to this being so obviously the sole voice of Alexander, a man with newfound confidence both personally and musically. He wears his queerness on his sleeve, while vocally there are hints of Michael Jackson to his aggressive, sexually-charged delivery.

There's a concept behind 'Palo Santo', that of a dystopian future ruled by androids, but this seems to be informing the music videos more than the music itself. Really, this an album about living as a queer man in 2018. For the most part, that means sex and lots of it, with gay and straight men alike.

Yet the imagery Alexander chooses in all this is religion. There's a personal interest there (he grew up next to a churchyard and has admitted to being drawn to religious iconography), but more so he's subverting traditional views of both religion and the sinful nature of homosexuality. The translation of 'palo santo' is 'holy wood', a cheeky yet fair summation of the album's lustful themes.

Sex isn't just an expression of queerness, it's a way of overcoming internalised shame. Howl includes a direct callout "so help me God" and on Preacher Alexander pleads for his lover to "come on out, come on out" before tempting him to "take a bite". The religious theme is more explicit, though, on dramatic lead single Sanctify, depicting a sort of homosexual baptism of fire. "I won't be ashamed," sings Alexander defiantly, "Sanctify my sins when I pray."

Once the thrill of sex dies down, 'Palo Santo' is a frank depiction of self-discovery and the emotional torture of relationships. Hypnotised is the album's most beautiful, dreamy moment, Alexander portraying the mesmerising intoxication of a relationship in his wistful falsetto. Later on the title track, that same "sweet intoxication" reflects the darkness of a destructive partnership. If You're Over Me is all bubbly pop, but lyrically it illustrates the impossible nature of being friends with an ex-lover blowing hot and cold.

Later there's the up-tempo Don't Panic that bristles with fizzing anxiety, emotions erupting beneath a fa├žade of tough masculinity: "sadness is secret, 'cause boys don't cry." It's not only a comment on toxic masculinity, but of the mental health issues faced by the LGBT community - something Alexander has publicly documented.

It's that honesty, behind all the futuristic synths and yearning melodies, that makes 'Palo Santo' such an electrifying listen. This is a pop album with real depth, pairing the very reality of queer experience with a fantastical sense of gothic, religious grandeur. It cements Alexander as a gay icon striding confidently into the mainstream, the voice of his generation.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Sanctify
* All For You
* Don't Panic

Listen: 'Palo Santo' is out now.