Years & Years’ London-based frontman Olly Alexander spent his adolescent years as an actor, but his celestial synth-pop band’s debut full-length, Communion, suggests an occupation far more holy for the wiry and waifish 24-year-old. You may remember his curly mop making an appearance as a double-crossing drug addict in Gaspar Noé’s hallucinatory 2009 feature, Enter the Void, but his is a stabilizing presence amid this record’s flailing electronics. If not angelic, then Alexander’s something like an altar boy, his feather-light vocals delicately flickering like lonely votive candles surrounded by the trio’s fleshly fixations (both lyrical and instrumental) on the physical elements of the sacrament in question: the heaving body, the dripping blood.
This is Olly Alexander broken for you, shimmering and sanctified from the cracked opening moments of leadoff track “Foundation.” Spectral synth lines swirl around him, but his concerns are depressingly corporeal. He sees a scratch on a lover’s shoulder and it “crushes [him] like lead.” It’s a clunky metaphor in the wrong hands, but surrounded with regret and self-flagellation that’s de rigueur for those who place a lot of importance on communion, it lands like a whip crack. A few of Alexander’s fellow Brits try to marry romantic disintegration and dance pop like this, but where they’d sputter and collapse into cliché, Alexander and Co. keep the faith, whispering their desperate pleas for reconciliation like secular Hail Marys.
All of these lyrical open wounds could be hard to stomach if not for the salve that Emre Turkmen and Mikey Goldsworthy’s head-spinning instrumentals provide. Tracks like “Take Shelter” nod to the teeth-chattering psychedelia of the electronic acts Years & Years claim as influences (Flying Lotus, Radiohead, and Diplo, among others). Like Alexander’s words, the instrumentation’s effects are bodily: Juddering kick drums hit hard enough to spark arrhythmias, and the dizzying arpeggios of “Ties” seem like they could cause actual vertigo. But even when Years & Years play it relatively straight — as on the stately ballad “Desire” — they’re able to turn in buoyant synth tics that give a helium boost to Alexander’s otherwise dour devotionals.
But those balloons do occasionally pop. On “Eyes Shut,” Alexander’s song of experience from slides from Blake-ian to James Blake-ian, a strangely staid look for the otherwise ecstatic trio. It’s a trap they fall into occasionally elsewhere, but all fall short of the glory of God, after all. Someday soon Years & Years could be worthy of the “Worship” that all of Communion religious allusions cheekily point toward. That’s what communion is for. Try again. Perfect yourself. Take and eat.