Album Review: Years & Years – Palo Santo

Monday, July 16, 2018

If you thought Years & Years were about to encounter the sophomore album blues, you’re very wrong. The British synth-pop trio has re-emerged with vengeance with their latest LP Palo Santo. Whereas their debut LP Communion lacked risk, Palo Santo sees the trio dive into a pool of risks, and the outcome is their most outstanding work to-date.

The album’s title Palo Santo means ‘holy wood’ in Spanish, and is wood that derives from the magical Palo Santo tree — it’s believed that when the wood is burned, the smoke possesses healing powers. Listening to the album achieves this exact same effect with its wholehearted words an exploration of queerness, masculinity, and freedom.

Palo Santo places Olly Alexander as the protagonist of the LP — his romantic endeavours, both relationships and casual hook-ups, are unguarded and are on full display. Along with discussions of relationships, another prominent aspect of the album is its affiliation with elements of religion and faith. Throughout the album, Alexander connects the freedom and salvation people search for from religion to the release and liberation he feels from his love life, whether it’s engaging in a casual relationship or coming to terms with the end of something that he thought was serious. Religion evokes powerful emotions in its followers, and the album presents how the human experience of sexuality (which religion may deem as ‘forbidden’) can bring about these same feelings for those engaged in it.

The LP fuses various ports of inspiration, from 90s R&B to early 2000s 'I'm a Slave 4 U' and 'Outrageous' Britney — the latter particularly prevalent on the opening track ‘Sanctify’. The hypnotic track is about Alexander’s sexual encounter with a man who identifies as straight. He encourages the man to embrace his sexual desires and to not shy away from them. In the track, Alexander boldly declares, "Sanctify my body with pain / Sanctify the love that you crave”. The following track ‘Hallelujah’ describes a hook-up and the feelings of liberation that can come from sex. Alexander says he wants to dance “until our bodies are singing hallelujah”.

As expressed on ‘Sanctify’, Alexander’s encounter with a straight-identifying man was a source of inspiration. Even though it’s difficult to predict whether ‘Preacher’ and ‘Sanctify’ are about the same love interest, ‘Preacher’ also sees Alexander encourage his love interest to embrace his true desires and to be free. He says, “Cause I really wanna love you / But you're hiding, yeah, you're hiding / You should come on out / Come on out”.

The infectious and anthemic tunes Years & Years fans loved on the trio’s debut were not abandoned on Palo Santo, instead, they appear more refined and developed. ‘All for You’, which is about the end of a relationship, is designed to be played aloud and on-repeat. The track features Years & Years thematic use of religion. The lyrics, “And love's a bitter fruit if you choose to remain in your shame / But you couldn't listen, no,” is a play on the forbidden romance between Adam and Eve in the Genesis story. ‘If You’re Over Me’ is classic Years & Years catchy synth-pop — though the track appears upbeat, it's an expression of release from a relationship that has run its course. ‘Karma’ features the infectious goodness, but with an R&B twist.

Elements of R&B appear throughout the LP, with influences ranging from Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake. ‘Lucky Escape’ is a soaring number that’s about the relief of getting out a relationship. Alexander admits that he dodged a bullet, the words “Don't lose perspective / We all get damaged, and some of us don't ever heal" hold weight. Written solely by Alexander, the track is surrounded by fervent feelings, as well as confidence. The words of ‘Lucky Escape’ have without a doubt left the guy in question embarrassed. Enwrapped in soulful R&B influences, ‘Lucky Escape’ is the ultimate break-up song for those looking to feel empowered by their decision to end a relationship that wasn’t working.

The album concludes with ‘Here’, which is reminiscent of a church hymn. Alexander’s vocals remain at the forefront with choir-like echoes backing him. The track is a fitting conclusion to the album and combines the prominent theme of religion with pensive lyricism.

Years & Years ascend to new heights with Palo Santo, each track appearing as a declaration of freedom and liberation — through evocative lyricism and anthemic tunes designed to be blasted aloud, Years & Years have set the benchmark for synth-pop that comes after them in 2018.

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)