Sunday, July 22, 2018

Palo Santo | Years & Years



When they follow acclaimed or popular debut records, sophomore efforts can be notoriously daunting. And when left to expand beyond a controllable blueprint, conceptual albums can be... well, yikes. Therein lies a hesitation with pop trio Years & Years’ second record, Palo Santo. A load of cryptic promotion and a complex, half-baked concept based on a dystopian society plagued the record’s launch – a strange disconnect from Communion, a relatively vague record with no other intentions than to blast dancing synthpop back into cultural perspective. In comparison, Palo Santo is an exaggerated mirror of commercial pop album tropes with an outward queer energy.

Palo Santo offers, quite literally, a gay ol’ time. Olly Alexander steps in front of his band mates to become the sole face of Years & Years, ditching most in-house production work and squaring this record’s sights on his own lust, love, and desires. As the primary energy source for this album, Alexander’s sexual prowess overpowers its lyrical delivery by way of religious metaphor. Opening track and lead single “Sanctify,” a dance track with a tribal heartbeat, aligns the rest of the record’s tone, jumping into Alexander’s midnight entanglements with a straight-identifying man.  Elsewhere, he bops through the hyperactive “Hallelujah” with hopes for his body to cry the word while grinding with a man on the dance floor, and he leans into the stuttering beat of “Karma” with some word play: “Karma, come over.” (A wink and a nudge are implied, of course.) And luckily, his outward demands bypass the unnecessary fictitious footnotes that were stamped into the album’s storyboard.

Like most life-defining club songs for gay men, the songs on Palo Santo are built upon the same framework as Cher’s “Believe” and that club remix of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston: Throbbing synthesizers, overpowering beats, and hyper-augmented choruses. Vocal melodies become less important in the sweaty, strobe-lit mix, though they are more prominent in the album’s superior front half. Songs like “Rendezvous” and “Hallelujah” keep the record burning white hot for six tracks or so, before it hits a notable wall and stumbles toward its conclusion. “If You’re Over Me” is way too cutesy for the occasion, and “Lucky Escape” reeks of Julia Michaels, despite her name not being attached to the songwriting credits.

Unlike Cher and Whitney Houston, Alexander lacks the foghorn vocal power to blare over the album’s thumping bass. Though multi-tracks help prop him up, he often molds into the madness, dancing around the beats that keep these tracks alive. Just as was the case on Communion, the slower tracks on Palo Santo allow Alexander, now more confident vocally and emotionally than he was three years ago, to get attention in his own tracks. “Hypnotised” is a mystifying track, but it and “Here” feel somewhat obligatory, as if placed in the track listing as a break for listeners to peek their heads out from under the sheets and catch a breath before heading back in for more action. Of course, the break is much more necessary when the record is really in the heat of the moment than when it stumbles out of rhythm halfway through.

Palo Santo is out now under Interscope Records.

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Maira Gall