It had been 3 years since the debut album Communion had been released and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever see a follow up from British Pop/Electro trio Years and Years.
The second album in any artists musical career is often the most difficult especially if the debut garnered large success. You don’t want to make the album the same as the first but at the same time you don’t want to abandon what made you successful in the first place and alienate your fan base.
With “Palo Santo” I think Years and Years have struck a decent balance between the two although in most parts it is a very safe album which has flickers of intriguing imagination.
But before I have even listened to the album the liner notes show me there could be problems for the band. On the debut album all three members (Olly Alexander, Emre Turkmen and Michael Goldsworthy) write and produce the album. The have writing and producing credits on every song.
On “Palo Santo” Turkmen has one writing credit out of 11 songs with Goldsworthy having a co credit on 2 tracks. Years and Years only produce one of the songs on the album whereas they produced every single one on the debut.
Olly Alexander meanwhile has a writing credit on every single song on this album. It strikes me that this is becoming a solo project for vocalist Alexander and “Years and Years ” is perhaps a brand they did not want to let go of. Or maybe I am just wrong and looking into things too much but clearly they had difficulty writing a new album and I can’t imagine the record company was too happy.
The title of the album “Palo Santo” means ‘Holy Wood’. There are many themes of religion and spirituality on this project but I feel there were similar things on “Communion” with songs like “Worship” and “Desire”.
Alexander talks about relationships and sexuality throughout his lyrics. I like that he deals with his sexuality in an upfront and personal way but is unwilling to compromise his feelings to make the music more accessible for relationships between male and females. He is a gay man and he is quite happy to refer to that when some of the biggest gay artists of all time like George Michael, Elton John or even Sam Smith have and continue to write their lyrics as gender neutral.
The album kicks off with “Sanctify”. The production on this track is excellent with a deep and moody synth bass. The atmosphere on this track is dark and gritty. Lyrically Alexander seems to be talking about sexual encounters and connecting them to religious experiences. It’s not typical pop song content but Alexander has something in his voice that makes it sound a lot sweeter than it really is.
I think this is a great opener and one of the albums strongest cuts.
The second track “Hallelujah” is my favourite on the album. It’s the closest track to sounding like “Desire” from the debut and packs an almighty punch. At the time of writing I don’t know what the next single is going to be but if this isn’t a surefire hit then I don’t know what is.
A booming beat drives through this track. The vocal from Alexander may be a little autotuned during the chorus but it is that infectious chorus that makes this track memorable.
One of trio Emre Turkman only has a credit on this song for percussion on this track. I find that very strange and furthers my point that this is no longer a band but an Olly Alexander solo project which ultimately when listening doesn’t matter because you are listening for the music and not the internal band politics but I still find it bizarre.
“All For You” is another strong track. The production is understated and never becomes too complicated but this allows the lyrics to be conveyed clearly and sets the story.
The lyrical content is a lot darker than the power pop disguise it wears as Alexander tells the story of an emotionally abusive relationship where a passive aggressive nature of the other person makes this union a flawed one.
“Karma” takes it sounds from the late 90’s / early 00’s R&B Pop. Neither Turkman or Goldsworthy have any part to play on this song. They are not involved in any instrumentation or writing.
It’s track which has a great hook and some interesting flows to it’s final minute but the verses are a little skeletal which stops it from being a real standout track. It’s a bit of a “album track” if that makes sense but the narrative about Alexander’s relationship experience is again met on this song.
“Hypnotized” is the first ballad that we come across on “Palo Santo”. I felt Alexander delivered the slower songs well on the debut album and this works well again.
The entire track is drenched in the dramatic but there is a beauty to the simplicity of the whole make up of the song. The track delves into the early stages of a relationship when being with someone can become all consuming as their intoxicating nature has you almost at their mercy in this hypnotic feeling. It’s one of those tracks to sit in with some good quality headphone and immerse yourself in this atmospheric delight.
“Rendezvous” again nods to that early 00’s pop and is one of the very few songs actually written by all members of the group. It’s one of the weaker tracks though and never seems to go anywhere and the interlude with Alexander shouting doesn’t work for me and perhaps it is the British accent or that it’s just so out of place on the album makes it sound a little silly.
On the seventh track “If You’re Over Me” we get a really fun production with some bouncy and light instrumentation. Lyrically the story of this relationship is conveyed perfectly with Alexander expressing his annoyance at the other person for all the games he is playing.
The first verse is played out with Alexander directly telling this person for the first time what he thinks and references this in the second verse by saying “There you go there I said, don’t look at me all offended”
Whilst Alexander is trying to be strong on this track the lyrics at times show a vulnerability and I am not convinced he really wants this person to leave.
“Preacher” is another track where Alexander speaks about Sexuality, love and how these connect with spirituality. The track seems to be about being with someone who is not honest with their sexuality and Alexander is trying to help them own up to their feelings and not think about things like what their father would think if he saw them together.
Another strong track. Another track where two members of Years & Years have nothing to do with.
“Lucky Escape” is one of the best lyrical songs on the project. This track isn’t just looking back on a relationship and reviewing it badly – it is taking a massive dump all over it.
Alexander does not hold back on how much he finds this person he was with a distasteful human being. He is brutal in his descriptions as he calls this person fake, deluded and manipulative. He believes he dodged a bullet and he puts this over perfectly.
The title track “Palo Santo” is the penultimate offering. Those 00’s Justin Timberlake vibes are all over the sound of this track and Alexander sounds better vocally that on any song we have heard until this point. I think this is a really strong song not just because it has a catchy chorus but that the tone is reflective and sombre. There is a struggle within the delivery of the lyrics that Alexander cannot hide.
The final track (because I don’t do deluxe editions) is “Here”. If there was a more sombre way to end an album I don’t know what it could be because this is song is 01.39m hymn like minimal track where Alexander again shows his vulnerability on a haunting end to the set.
Musically I don’t think this album is diverse enough and I find it a bit difficult to distinguish between tracks. There are at least 4 that I find memorable and they are very strong songs where Alexander really lights up the pop music world with some great hooks, vocals and songwriting.
His personality really overtakes everything on here and you feel as though you have got to know him better not that he was closed about his sexuality on the first album but on here he has much more confidence in talking about his life and relationships that have shaped him.
As I have pointed out the lack of the other two members of Years and Years having much to do with most of the track on the album is surely a problem and if they bring out a third album under “Years and Years” I will be very surprised.
This is an Olly Alexander solo project and he is the star.