Years & Years: Palo Santo review – True believers in dance
Years & Years
Years & Years make dance-pop music distinguished by its feelings of intimacy. The production slaps hard – of that there is no doubt. But there’s something immediate and personal about their performance that’s untypical of the genre.
Take the title track from the London group’s second album, Palo Santo. The name refers to a South American aromatic wood that for centuries has been burned in great ceremony as a spiritual remedy. Singer Olly Alexander’s voices echoes through the track as though delivered in the centre of a great canyon. This song could score a new faith where dance is the form of worship. On Hallelujah, Years & Years preach the importance of dance as a form of human connection – and its importance in the treatment of broken souls. “I wanna dance till I speed up the healing,” sings Alexander over the brisk electronic percussion. Sometimes the best music to move your body to is made by artists who see a deeper importance to the act.
Forging a mutated form of spiritualism over catchy beats has been a feature of Years & Years (made up of Alexander, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen). Hell, the British group’s first album was called Communion. The record, released in 2015, made them stars at home by highlighting their ability to craft chart hits built on to-the-point synth-pop production, open-book writing and Alexander’s affecting performance.
Palo Santo adds a team of producers with impressive pedigrees (Steve Mac, Jesse Shatkin and Mark Ralph, among others) bringing new components to Years & Years’ sound. This is a record with fresher ideas without diluting what made them stand out in the first place.
Some songs have a pristine 1980s pop inclination. The slick grooves and programmed strings of Karma, the best number on Palo Santo, channel the spirit of Michael Jackson.
Shooting forward in time, Lucky Escape features chirpy vocal samples and thick, Timbaland-esque drums. It’s helmed by producer Two Inch Punch, who I’m 87 per cent sure owned a copy of Tim’s Shock Value. I do wish Years & Years would indulge their instinct for throwback commercial chart R&B more.
Then there’s the bubblegum bounce of If You’re Over Me, the most upbeat break-up tune you’ll hear in 2018. Alexander – his voice eternally sparking memories of Justin Timberlake back when he was rocking the curls – deploys elaborate imagery of huge storms (“A tempest, you was rising”) while drawing from classic literature (And you’re Jekyll and Hydein’/ Are you real or are you lying?) to rinse his ex-beau. It’s goofy, but sometimes Years & Years succeed by going that way.
There’s a thin line between fun and corny. Some tracks lean a little too far towards the latter, wandering into the territory of triteness. Take All For You, which sounds like the kind of ubiquitous single you hear all summer in Corfu. The synths sound cheap and the stock melody too well-worn. Preacher, meanwhile, fails to successfully deploy Alexander’s impressive falsetto as it meshes into the overwrought orchestration without poise or form.
It’s these moments that deny Palo Santo classic pop status, but that might yet come for Years & Years. No point in preaching to the converted. This is a church that will thrive if it pursues its beliefs to their wild final destination.