Three years after a debut of unusual density—a flowering plant with thorns—Years & Years feel confident enough to kick the blues away. It’s a canny move as Troye Sivan shimmies on American morning shows, finding an audience for queer synth pop in young listeners who can accept a song about bottoming as a statement of masculine vulnerability. In 2018, our appetite for setting machismo on fire remains unabated.
If on Communion the London trio presented their primal nervousness in keyboard arpeggios that spiraled up and around, steeped in a Bible that’s been bowdlerized by Pet Shop Boys, Palo Santo keeps its emotions closer to the vest. This is Years & Years’ pop record; regrettably, it’s also the record where singer Olly Alexander fashions himself as Adam Levine or Natalie Merchant, an entity apart from mates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen. The solid group-written midtempo thumper “Rendezvous” aside, Alexander and collaborators like The Monsters and the Strangerz (Jason Derulo, Fifth Harmony) and Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran) dominate the album. More ominous are the presences of Julia Michaels and Thomas Hull, whom we can count on to turn any British singer into a platitudinous bore emoting for talent show audiences.
Fans may not notice the differences. In the aggravating synth-whistle motif in “If You’re Over Me” and the strangled-cow effect in “Preacher,” the hooks are single-minded of purpose—no wrinkles to uncover, no boils to lance; a straightness, if you will. Singing within his natural range, Alexander shows few signs of the previous album’s strain, but then again, there’s not much to strain over except the denominational overtones of “Hallelujah” and leaked track “Sanctify,” two of the album’s dullest numbers. The more professional the results, the more vacant the performance: the Greg Kurstin-produced “All for You” has a house bounce in its chorus that is Communion’s “Shine” stripped of desperation, much like “Sanctify” is “Worship” set in a church of the self.
A showbiz kid who has grown up in a post-AIDS world where threats to the previous generation’s bequeathed liberties produce the loudest resistance, Alexander wrote his sharpest songs from the point of view of a starfucker. “Everybody’s screaming out your name / Are you scared?” he asked on Communion’s “Ties.” On the last stretch of Palo Santo, Y&Y meld the hooks with wryly observed takes on falling for guys as vain as you. The synthesized pizzicato and sampled voice manipulations of “Lucky Escape” give Alexander the proper setting in which to sigh gorgeously. The title track, named for the South American tree burned for its fragrant healing smoke, celebrates a lover who’s like “the darkness” in him but may also be a literal translation of what if feels like to have holy wood inside you (Troye Sivan, call your agent). He loves the wood, all right, so long as it’s holy.
Olly’s a serious dude—intoxication he limns well, but euphoria gives him trouble, as if it were a foreign language. That’s what made “Shine” such a glorious outlier on Communion and “Up in Flames” on the new record, although listeners will need to stream or buy the deluxe edition to hear this marvelous freestyle-soaked banger reliant on the record’s most confident Alexander performance; he syncopates with the programmed bass as if locking eyes with a cute boy on the dance floor, except the boy in “Up in Flames,” one corner of a love triangle, drives Alexander to set the past on fire. “And we’re dancing to the sound / Of your demons falling down,” he sings, lost in music, percussion rattling, melodies surging to match the clamor in his heart and the heat in his loins.
That Years & Years didn’t make “Up in Flames” the lead single is an expected perversity. Beaty and bouncy but less meaty, Palo Santo is for now an unsatisfying follow-up to a terrific debut; then again, Communion required several plays to shake the dread out of its joints. If Alexander learns how to replace the mere registering of complaints with an enthusiastic meanness, who knows what indefatigable machines he and his collaborators will manufacture. Inviting Türkmen and Goldsworthy to the party will help.