Monday, July 9, 2018

album review: 'palo santo' by years & years

So I was really harsh the last time I reviewed Years & Years, back in 2015. I think part of it was the expectation I was going to like it more than I did - electronic and synth-driven pop with prominent, forward-thinking sexual themes in the midst of a synthpop wave that really crested that year in the indie scene - but between vocals that never really gripped me, production that was more concerned with washing everything out, and lyrics that definitely trod into some questionable territory without the smarter framing to back it up. Oh sure, 'Gold' was a fantastic song that I still revisit to this day, but beyond that... I didn't really have a lot of interest when this got added to my schedule. 

That being said, I was intrigued by some of the buzz around Palo Santo, most notably that frontman Olly Alexander was doubling down on the religious iconography of his writing and flipping it for a more transgressive edge - hell, the title of the record is a name for an incense used by the Inca culture to cast out evil spirits and is loosely translated to 'holy wood'. Well, it's better than what Tove Lo did in 2016, but I'll freely admit I tend to be a sucker for religious subversion, so hopefully a few years away could lead to a more refined execution - so what did we get on Palo Santo?

So this is one of those pop albums that I did not expect to like quite as much as I did - definitely a measurable improvement from their debut in my books and I can point to exactly where very easily - and yet I would struggle to quite say this is a great record. Oh, it's getting there - by cutting out a lot of the fat and streamlining things Years & Years certainly delivered a good project with few lulls, but I'd struggle to really call it great. Solid for sure, but definitely a step away from true greatness.

And where I think we need to start is the most notable improvement: Olly Alexander himself, because in terms of projecting a more convincing, openly sexual presence as he kind of has to in order to carry this record, he really stepped up to the plate here. A big part of this ties into how much tighter and controlled his delivery is, but a larger factor comes in the judicious usage of multitracking - he doesn't have the most powerful voice but by organically filling more of the vocal track he's a lot more effective here. Hell, the improvement was so stark I actually went back to Communion to see if I had misheard something the first time around, but no - he's just improved significantly, showing an ease and comfort that's naturally increased his expressiveness in a big way and rarely getting subsumed by the larger mix.

Granted, a big part of this comes in the content... where I will introduce the caveat that this record didn't quite get as transgressive or challenging as I was hoping, we're still a far cry from Perfume Genius here. But what has changed is Alexander's position within the narrative of these songs - what felt kind of weak-willed or unconvincing on the debut is amped up with more strident presence, which is a natural fit for the sort of dance rhythms he approaches. What I found interesting in the framing is that while there is some religious iconography utilized, the double entendres are remarkably straightforward or damn near literal across the sexual scenarios, from hooking up with guys claiming their heterosexuality on 'Sanctify', guys just using him for a physical relationship and not an emotional one on 'Rendezvous', to coaxing a partner away from disapproving religious figures within the family on 'Preacher'. And what I like is that homosexuality in and of itself is not framed as perverse on songs like the title track: it's a dark song, but the darkness is coming from our protagonist pulled back towards an ex in a drug-infused hookup where said ex is cheating on his partner. Now granted, there are elements of cattiness that I wish didn't feel so obvious on songs like 'Lucky Escape', but even then it's smart enough to show how the social media projection of that ex is really just obscuring old feelings, and Alexander is going to move on regardless. Hell, that impulse to actively move on is what probably elevates this record the most, a built-in sense of blunt maturity that didn't nearly come through strongly enough on Communion, but still willing to seek relationships with genuine romance like on 'Hypnotized'.

So okay, if the writing and performances have both improved, what holds this project back? Well, it might be some of the production, where despite hiring a slightly richer cast of producers including Greg Kurstin who gives 'Hallelujah' some much needed punch as one of the best cuts here thanks to that tighter bass groove and wells of synth, still feels a shade too washed out and lacking deeper melodic tone. 'Sanctify' is a prime early example - the vocal line and production almost feels somewhat reminiscent of early-to-mid 2000s Justin TImberlake with more organic percussion, but the foundational tune feels undercooked beyond the hazy vocal samples - similar case for the reverb-drenched 'Hypnotized' or the title track, even if I really do like the piano lines. And sometimes when you get more synth leads, like the jagged buzzes on the hook of 'All For You', coming out of the more restrained, muffled keys on the verses, it feels like more texture than actual tone, or when you get the pluckier synth leads on the hook of 'Karma' or the oily tones and slightly sloppier multi-tracking of 'Rendezvous' they just feel underweight and thin in the mix. And then you get chirpier tones likes 'If You're Over Me' or the fluttery vocal samples of 'Lucky Escape'... look, I'm not saying either are bad, they can really be alarmingly catchy and I really dig the subtle bass groove beneath the latter, but does it really fit with the heavier atmosphere that Years & Years has cultivated on the rest of the project, especially when you have 'Preacher' between them? But that's more a factor of how the record as a whole can feel a tad... slight, for lack of better words, from lyrics that feel blunter than usual to production that's making a more obvious play for mainstream accessibility and colour - and when you consider the record comes in at a tight thirty seven minutes, what more proof do you need?

That said, I do like this a fair bit, even if I'm not sure the audience that preferred Years & Years' more atmospheric electronic will get on board in the same way. And indeed, if the production felt a bit more cohesive and layered I think this might click more effectively to match stronger performances and writing, but as it is, this is a light 7/10 and a recommendation, easily. If you're looking for a pretty solid queer-friendly pop record from a group no longer afraid to mince words, you could do worse than Years & Years, so yeah, check this out.

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