Taking its name from a mystical incense used to banish negative energy, ‘Palo Santo’ is also Spanish for Holy Wood. And before you ask, yes, that is a dick joke; Olly Alexander has joked in interviews that much of this album is written about men who think their wood is holy. As a first window into proceedings, that double-edged blade just about tells you all you need to know about Years & Years’ mentality going into album number two. At once playful and bruised, ‘Palo Santo’ masters the tension that centres the very best pop music. Sad and sexy at once, turning pain into bittersweet euphoria, tapping into the darkest corners of desire, and finding belonging in bleakness, Olly Alexander’s voice centres this entire album, giving a megaphone to his own lived queer experience.
Years & Years’ debut album bore definite hints of ‘Palo Santo’s voice, and in that sense, the band’s second record represents an ongoing evolution. The group’s most massive single from the debut, ‘King’, was hooky as hell and rode the airwaves – and the number one single spot – like a champ; it also contained a darker, more subversive undertone. If the line “I was a king under your control,” isn’t a winking reference to sexual power dynamics, then what on earth is it?
From the melodic moans that kick off ‘Don’t Panic’, ‘Rendezvous’’ Euro-pop-era Jennifer Lopez vibes, to the downright filthy ‘Sanctify’, Years & Years are holding nothing back this time around. The results are soaring and unapologetic. The latter of those songs particularly nails a tension that’s not been tackled by a male pop star in recent memory, detailing an affair with a man who identifies as straight. “You don’t have to be straight with me,” Alexander puns, before extrapolating; “I see what’s underneath your mask”. It’s a clever linguistic play on the masc 4 masc labels used by certain closed-minded men on dating apps, and through the lens of sin and sanctification (becoming holy) ‘Sanctify’ isn’t just a ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ inspired pop banger, it’s a thoughtful exploration of masculinity and how it sits alongside queerness.
Olly Alexander’s been quick to note the “petty” aspects of ‘Palo Santo’ – many of these songs, he’s said, are directed at a certain ex-boyfriend, and the record is filled with lines that brood and sulk deliciously. “Promiscuous boy, be ashamed,” he sings on stand-out petty-pop banger ‘Lucky Escape’, achieving the rare feat of deploying a takedown that somehow references Nelly Furtado. “Well I can tell you honey, I’m potent / At least I own up to mistakes”. The soaring title-track ‘Palo Santo’, meanwhile, is drenched with brilliantly sadistic gems – “Does the mark on my skin, make you hot with shame?” one lyric challenges – alongside one particularly spiky dig; “do I look good in this position, just like him?”
Yet for all of ‘Palo Santo’s barbs – nursing a broken heart with the help of strangers, drowning in dancing bodies, and taking pleasure from serving up anger – Olly Alexander doesn’t paint himself as blameless; nothing is clearly cut or divided into the separate camps of “good” and “bad” here. Instead, this album is a more wily dissection.
It’s also refreshing to see Olly Alexander – who has become increasingly vocal with regards to mental health and LGBTQ rights outside of his band in recent years – bring this same voice straight to the heart of Years & Years. Taking intense sadness out for a night on the glitter-soaked tiles, ‘Palo Santo’ links the intense escapism of pop music with the sanctuary the queer community seek in their own special, sacred spaces. From start to finish, Years & Years worship at the triple-altars of limb-thrashing hedonism, religious iconography and guilt-tainted desire. Filthy, sexy, thoroughly debauched pop at its finest; ‘Palo Santo’ feels like a magical album.