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WPGM Recommends: Years & Years – Palo Santo (Album Review)

When synthpop band Years & Years released their debut studio album, Communion, in 2015, it completely changed their lives. While this was definitely not the first piece of music the trio had let out into the world, this was the first time it had peaked in the charts, and the first time they would win anything for it, including an ‘Album of the Year’ award.

It simultaneously launched them into international waters and turned them into overnight stars in the UK. It especially created a spark in the LGBT community, with how open the frontman, Olly Alexander, was about his sexuality as a gay man.

Composed mainly of Alexander on vocals, Mikey Goldsworthy on keyboards and bass guitar, and Emre Türkmen on synthesisers and guitar, Years & Years is a compact trio, based in London. While they do have live members that travel with them on tour and are an incredibly imperative part of their live shows, everything else is run by the three of them.

It is indeed a magnificent effort on everyone’s part, as the band has been a unit since 2010 – and, more importantly, this month gave us the glorious gift of Years & Years’ second studio album, aptly entitled Palo Santo.

As sacred as the Spanish phrase is, which translates to “holy woods”, Palo Santo, released on July 6, displays that metaphor proudly, with themes ranging from religion, sexuality and guilt. The first single that premiered for the album, back in March, was “Sanctify”.

It was an innovative step for the band, but it still resonated with the energy and sound that marked Communion as a masterpiece. In contrast, this song is a lot more open than anything we’d heard from Years & Years – a resolute anthem for anyone struggling with their sexuality. It becomes even more apparent when Alexander lets in on the experience it’s based on: straight men who experiment with gay sex.

There is another theme prevalent in Palo Santo; something beyond the guilt and the bitterness that comes with bad relationships and a lack of a good support system (a position that most LGBT people find themselves in). It’s displayed in the music videos that have so far been released for this album.

Sanctify” initiated the story with a video that displays a dystopia where gayness is put on display. We see the character that Alexander plays in bondage, being forced to dance like an acrobat, until he’s set free and can move much more fluidly. It’s evidently a garish metaphor for violent homophobia, but it works well. In fact, it’s rather excellent storytelling.

If You’re Over Me” is the second single for Palo Santo, and it premiered a month prior to the album’s release. This track entertains the bitterness that comes with an ex that simply won’t leave you alone. “Stop telling me what I need / baby, if you’re over me” is what Alexander sings, showing his displeasure towards a past failed relationship. It’s the kind of song that will have you feeling betrayed even if you’ve never been in such a situation – it’s just that good.

The music video continues in a similar fashion to “Sanctify”. It is rather obvious that, at this point, Years & Years are working towards telling a story of this Hunger Games-esque society. More than that, however, it’s strangely reminiscent of the kind of tales that were laid out in My Chemical Romance’s last official album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.

In fact, this sort of theatricality was apparent throughout the band’s entire career, with elaborate concepts and even grander live shows. Therein lies the connection between the ability to produce spectacular works of art and defying cisheteronormative standards.

A much more sombre song that can be found on the album is “Hypnotised”. However, this isn’t the first time we’re hearing it – it was featured in a short film by Baz Luhrmann, The Secret Life of Flowers, made for a H&M clothing range, last year.

The music bears a vivid resemblance to the title, as it indeed possesses the ability to hypnotise the listener with its soft lulls and Alexander’s gentle vocals. With lyrics such as “I know a place where it’s always so perfect and blue / and the boy says: ‘Babe, believe me, it’s all for you’”, we’re reminded once more of the element of storytelling ever present throughout all of Palo Santo.

The theme of anger echoes in almost every song on the album, but never as loud as it does on “Karma”. The song starts off: “Enemies are tryna catch up, but nothing’s gonna fuck with my love / tired of erasing my history, daddy said I never could win”. The song does what the title says, and is full of lyrics about getting back what you put into the world. They’re accompanied with a classic repertoire of what synthpop is. Alexander’s voice has never sounded as good as it does on this song.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, “Don’t Panic” is a song about “hard anxiety”. It’s one of the bonus songs featured on the deluxe version of the album, and it’s true what they say: the bonus songs are always better. The music is the very essence of Europop – the kind of music they would show on Eurovision in earlier years – and the fast chorus creates the kind of tension that one feels during an anxiety attack.

Alexander sings, “Sadness is secret, ’cause boys don’t cry”, painting a picture of his own struggles with bad mental health. It’s a fact the singer has never shied away from sharing, and now he’s bringing it right to the forefront.

Palo Santo is the kind of album the LGBT community was certainly in need of, and we should be eternally grateful to Years & Years for delivering it at the right time – not only that, but delivering it perfectly. From the unapologetic lyrics that dare the audience to take them as they are, to live shows that boast of Alexander’s lived gayness to the way this band has become a symbol of showing resistance wherever it’s needed, and to create love whenever we’re sorely lacking.

Above all of that, one thing is for sure: there’s still so much more we can learn from the intrinsic values of love and life and the way these things come forward to celebrate the LGBT community, in a world that continues to load it with hate and oppression.

While Palo Santo is available for purchase from the band’s own website – where you can also watch the short film that accompanies the album – and from iTunes, it’s also ready to be streamed on Spotify below.

Words by Qurat-ul-anne Sikander
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