It was indeed a fateful day when British synthpop band, Years & Years, released their debut album, Communion, out into the world. Adorned with a cover that proudly displays a rainbow, it successfully managed to completely change the landscape of the music scene, three years ago.
Truly an earth-shattering release, Communion was the album that shot the trio of Olly Alexander, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen to superstardom overnight, after five years of officially being in a band together. It gained either the top position or the top ten in multiple charts all across the world, and is still widely renowned as a masterpiece by music critics.
Hailing from London, the band was originally made up of five people rather than three, but it slowly dwindled away until only Alexander, Goldsworthy and Türkmen made up the camp. Before Communion came onto the landscape, Years & Years filled up their discography with various EPs, such as Traps, Real and Take Shelter.
The last two of these featured the eponymous tracks “Real” and “Take Shelter”, that later went on to be included in the debut album, in 2015. It’s three years later now, and Years & Years are finally gearing up to reveal the follow-up to this masterpiece, Palo Santo, which simultaneously makes this the perfect opportunity to revisit Communion.
Lead vocalist and frontman, Olly Alexander, has always been the driving force behind the band. It’s no coincidence, then, that Alexander’s sexuality plays a major part in the music and the band’s aesthetics, showing everyone just how beautiful the LGBT community is.
An out and proud gay man, Alexander has never shied away from addressing it in his lyrics and putting it on display, including in their music videos, where others can relate and attempt to piece together their own identity. This is clearly evidenced as soon as the album starts – “Foundation” begins quiet, but with forceful lyrics that echo gay sentiment: “And I wanna get older / […] if I trumph, are you watching?”
Similar themes are present in “Real” and “Memo”, where Alexander explicitly makes use of the word “boy” and male pronouns to alert the listener about who he’s singing for. It was a bold move to make in 2015, with the way homophobic hate crimes were steadily on the rise in the UK, recorded at an increase of 22%.
It’s small wonder that Alexander has been lauded a role model for LGBT youth since he first stepped into the music scene – his position becomes even more apparent if we reflect on the fact that Alexander was advised to remain in the closet when he first started out. He chose to ignore this suggestion; yet, little did he know that that one decision of his would create and temper storms all across the world.
However, it’s always important to note that Years & Years’ music is not simply a safe haven for the LGBT fans they have accumulated. It is also a place for Alexander to talk about his experiences as a gay man, his fears and his demons. One such theme that remains a constant even in their upcoming album is sexual fantasy.
“Worship” opens up the floor for a frank conversation on bottoming. It features lyrics that don’t shy away from the topic: “Gotta move for your touch, gotta keep my lips shut / I’ll do what you tell me to, ‘cause in darkness I follow you”.
Gay sexuality and subsequent sexual fantasies have long since been a taboo subject in society – seen as something vile and dirty – so it’s interesting to see the kind of impact Years & Years have made, that a song like “Worship” continues to get radio play – I hear it almost weekly at work, and it never fails to brighten up my day.
“Border” is the one song on Communion that could quite easily be classified as a gay anthem. Its chorus perfectly highlights this: “My body will be stronger / my heart, it will start to shine, and I will be alright”, and the equally reassuring lyrics, “Do you require me to let you know you made it through, and it’s getting lighter / you won’t get lost, you’ll never lose”.
The theme coursing through this song correlates with Alexander’s openness about his mental health. As demonstrated in the documentary he helped bring to life last year, Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay, the singer has been dealing with mental health issues ever since childhood. This experience has guided him to create an open forum to talk about these issues. In a recent interview, he reportedly said, “we’re all in f**king pain, and I don’t know if we’re communicating with each other that well”.
A lesser known song, “Without” combines these two topics to create melancholy tunes to the sound of heartbreak. It is a rather peculiar thing, to hear about the kind of heartbreak faced by individuals of the LGBT community, after years of digging through songs that only reflected heterosexual experiences, in a desperate attempt to find something to identify with.
“Without” ends on an empowering note, claiming, “and I’ll be with you or without” – words that paint a bigger picture of survival in Alexander’s capable hands, his voice carrying it perfectly.
The desperation that results from a break-up, no matter how mutual, is felt tenfold in the LGBT community, where the expectations to maintain a ‘perfect’ relationship are even worse; it was best said by Alexander in his documentary, where he explained the trauma of growing up LGBT in a homophobic society, that is felt long after each individual reaches the point where they consider themselves as officially ‘out’.
While it is nowhere the cumulative act, “Gold” serves as a unifying force for the entire album. It lies somewhere between being impossibly upbeat and one of the more sombre songs on Communion. It starts off by questioning the bare bones of identity: “Am I defined? / oh, by the way they look at me / will I be tried? / oh, will they take what I believe?” Later, it goes on to ask directly, “do I belong?”
“Gold” is a song that stretches forward into the future, until about two months ago, when Years & Years released their comeback single, “Sanctify”. Both songs conceptualise the idea of being gay, where the latter talks about hiding behind a façade of heterosexuality, as it was inspired by Alexander’s sexual encounter with a seemingly straight man.
The bridge resonates with the lyric, “maybe it’s heavenly”, creating a map of the song, with a constant echo of “when I pray” in the background. It turns the whole scene sacred – something Alexander was quick to discuss, when he revealed “Sanctify” is also about celebrating the blessing of being gay.
Despite the fact that we are currently in the year 2018, this continues to be a bold move, as homophobic hate crimes are on the rise once again – this time, it’s at an even 147% since the Brexit vote in 2016. It is music at its finest, as a path of resistance; there is something defying and beautiful about being exactly who you are without any barriers.
That is the message delivered on Communion, and with Years & Years’ second album, Palo Santo, coming out in July, thankfully, we don’t have to wait long to hear more gorgeous melodies by Goldsworthy and Türkmen, transformed by Alexander’s haunting voice. Communion is available for purchase on iTunes here, whilst Palo Santo can be pre-ordered from the band’s official website.