Years & Years – ‘Night Call’ review: escapism rules on Olly Alexander’s solo debut

The musician had shed his bandmates and, as on previous records 'Communion' and 'Palo Santo', smuggles subversion into pounding, playful pop songs

By now, Olly Alexander has many strings to his bow. A solo artist after a parting-of-ways with his former Years and Years bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre  Türkmen, the singer has also become an in-demand collaborator (linking up with the likes of Jax Jones, Kylie Minogue and Elton John) and a critically-lauded actor.

Though Alexander’s time in the spotlight actually began on the silver screen back in 2013 (when he appeared on a spin-off episode of raucous teen drama Skins), it has now become his second calling alongside music. His starring role in Russell T. Davies’ ‘80s drama It’s A Sin, set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, was crowned as NME’s best TV show of 2021.

For anybody familiar with Years and Years’ previous record ‘Palo Santo’ – given the full 5-star treatment by NME – this perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise. On the concept-heavy record, set in a genderless android utopia thousands of years in the future, Alexander effortlessly embodied a space-aged pop star, fusing that record’s religious iconography with the kind of subversion that built skilfully on the key themes of power and control within Years and Years’ 2015 break-out singles: ‘King’ ‘Worship’ and ‘Desire’.

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If ‘Palo Santo’ felt like a welcome left-swerve into boundary-pushing pop, ‘Night Call’ feels a little like its prequel. The pogoing wobble-synth bassline of ‘Starstruck’, powering forward a huge chorus made for blasting out of the radio, feels like a single that bridges the gap with the direct songwriting of Years & Years’ debut album. As much as ‘King’ was a straight-up Number One hit, it also hinted at sexual power dynamics with lyrics exploring control and submission. That same playfulness is present here in spades.

The touchstones for ‘Night Call’ are also a lot more direct – primarily, it’s a straight-for-the-pop-jugular record of escapist moments. Loosely inspired by the pounding soundtrack of bittersweet ‘80s bangers that soundtrack It’s A Sin – from Bronski Beat, Wham! and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to the Pet Shop Boys hit that titles the show – the album takes its name from a euphemism for hooking up, and across its 14 tracks it celebrates dancing the night away in sweaty nightclubs and the giddiness of locking eyes with a brooding stranger across the bar.

As Alexander explained to Zane Lowe recently on Apple Music 1, even the process of making it felt like going on a filthy staycation from the drudgery of pandemic life. “It was like my escape,” he said. “I put all the kind of stuff I was missing, like going out, dancing, having sex. [I] just put it all into the record.”

Accordingly, hunger rumbles at the centre of ‘Night Call’ – as well as being made up of the most immediate songs Years & Years have ever released, an insatiability burns at their centre. On ‘Crave,’ Alexander begs for “the pain from you” atop discordant piano pounds, and a muffled bass that feels like it’s pounding out of a hidden basement door, “I’ll do anything to stay if you want me to”. Soaring into falsetto, ‘Intimacy’ has the outside appearance of sultry slow-burner about some very intense and solemn face-stroking, but is instead bitingly realistic about the long-term prospects with the person he’s just tied down to his four-poster. “I’m not one for casual intimacy,” he shrugs.

At times ‘Night Call’s escapism makes way for something more insidious – “If all i know is hurt, I’d rather be high,” Alexander sings on ‘Make It Out Alive’. “Take me out, somewhere loud,” he adds on ‘20 Minutes’, rushing towards the comfort of the dancefloor.

Despite its touchstones, ‘Night Call’ draws sparingly on the hallmarks of ‘80s synth-pop– while the likes of Dua Lipa, Kylie, Jessie Ware and Miley Cyrus have laden their own records with strutting slap-bass, Years and Years third record retools these sounds for contemporary pop – it’s less of a tribute, and instead integrates a smattering of squelching synth-sounds and bright French House-indebted beats in more subtle ways.

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Though ‘Night Call’ also gives the initial impression of being lighter than ‘Palo Santo’ –shame and sin imagery often making way for the giddying thrill of the chase (‘Sooner or Later’) and late-night booty calls (title-track ‘Night Call’) – it still subverts and surprises. Clearly an admirer of classic pop’s inherent playfulness, Alexander doesn’t just know how to craft a hit – he knows how to create a moment too. Need convincing? He’s plastered across the album sleeve in the guise of a sexy mermaid. In the video for ‘Starstruck’, he prances around a swanky hotel in a smoking jacket, trying to seduce his mirror image in between moonwalks.

That clip is every bit as escapist as ‘Night Call’s collection of well-crafted bangers, most of which are begging to be blasted out of a subwoofer as debauchery rages.

Details

Years & Years - ‘Night Call’ artwork

Release date: January 21

Release label: Polydor

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