Palo Santo

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 6, 2018

Palo Santo

Years & Years' 2015 debut album "Communion" showed promise in its hybrid of pop music, EDM, and R&B, with occasional earworm melodies over tracks designed for the dance floor, even if it largely sounded derivative. Despite being out, singer and lyricist Olly Alexander only suggested a queerness that he fully pursues here on the band's new album "Palo Santo" (released July 6). The band trades in that same musical hybrid, but take a few more risks this time around. A noticeable difference is the abundance of catchy melodies and choruses throughout. Allegedly a concept album, "Palo Santo" is a fictional city where humans and androids coexist. Regardless of the intended backstory, one thing is certain: This is a very queer album in Alexander's exploration of sexuality and relationships.

The album opens with "Sanctify," a dance track in which the vocals build to a lush climax. Alexander's lyrics about a sexual encounter with a closeted lover contain one of the best couplets on the album: "You don't have to be straight with me, I see what's under your mask." Two other singles released ahead of the album, "All for You" and "If You're Over Me," provide hit material as well. "All for You" is a banger with a big catchy chorus about having fallen in love with a closeted one-time encounter. In "If You're Over Me," the bubbling synths and multi-tracked vocals nicely juxtapose lyrics about a fickle lover who can't seem to stay gone.

Undoubtedly a highlight, "Hallelujah" finds Alexander getting turned on by a guy with moves on the dance floor. After the second chorus, Alexander belts "hallelujah!" and it is purely orgasmic. Maybe these guys are actually in bed.

Among other highlights, "Karma" is strikingly reminiscent of Michael Jackson in Alexander's layered vocal tracks, and in the composition itself. It's a nice shift in mood that leads into "Hypnotised," an ethereal and poignant ballad on profound attraction ("Every color comes to life, as petals fall before your eyes, you kiss me and I'm hypnotized").

Another ballad, "Lucky Escape" is replete with piano and plucky synths, probing a break-up about having "dodged a bullet." Perusing an ex's photos is problematic: "You must be happy without me, from all of the pictures I've seen of the two of you; is he a model? I'm not surprised, you're so vain." In the second verse, the protagonist is in denial, and even resentful. Repetitions of "You just come back a little too late, I'll be making my lucky escape" at the end of the song allow Alexander to vamp over the top, convincing himself he's escaped even if he's not sure he has (or even wants to, for that matter).

The title track poignantly explores longing for an already-coupled man who only provides illicit sex, and the jealousy and resentment that come from wanting more ("And I let you in, do I look good in this position just like him?... You're the darkness in me, Palo Santo"). Over a dark soundscape of piano, ethereal synths, and an agitated loop, Alexander's performance is stunning. And the emotional album closer "Here" is equally as breathtaking. An a cappella track, "Here" is a stark confession of the despair romantic abandonment can cause: "Shattering glass and a lover or three, oh baby you're so independent... take back the life that you gave to me 'cause I'm not here."

Only "Rendezvous" and "Preacher" are disappointments, albeit slightly so, in that the theme of hooking up with a closeted man is presented much more effectively in "Sanctify." That said, neither are bad songs by any stretch.

While Alexander's tremendous vocal abilities often recall George Michael, the longing and heartache in his lyrics are similar to Boy George, especially when he chronicled his relationship with ex-boyfriend and Culture Club bandmate Jon Moss in the 1980s. Three additional songs not provided for this review are included on the deluxe version of the album; whether or not those bonus tracks provide relief and/or return us to the dance floor after album closer "Here" is unknown as of this writing. Nonetheless, "Palo Santo" is a big step forward artistically for Years & Years - a concise album that never overstays its welcome, filled with memorable melodies. "Palo Santo" is also a work of substance, speaking to the sexual and romantic experiences of a wide swathe of queer people.

"Palo Santo"

by Years & Years

$12 (digital) and $20 (CD deluxe edition)

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.