The British trio are back with their new album Palo Santo and provide us with a diverse, richly intimate, and sexually empowered album.
In recent years lead singer and band frontman Olly Alexander has become increasingly vocal about LGBTQ+ rights, so it is hardly surprising to find his own experiences at the heart of Palo Santo, an album also overrun with religious and spiritual imagery. The religious influences are clearly seen just from looking at the track listing with songs such as Sanctify, Hallelujah, and Preacher drawing the eye. These religious themes are turned on their head and used as a way to further explore sexuality and relationships in the modern world. The titular track even, Palo Santo, refers to the indigenous South American incense used for centuries for cleansing and purifying. This new album does feel like a breath of fresh air, and Alexander’s honest openness makes for an record that is energizing to listen to.
The opening track Sanctify features a choir of powerfully energetic voices in the background that help to create a mystical atmosphere. The song itself details a homosexual affair with a straight man, for which Alexander puns ‘You don’t have to be straight with me’. We listen to Alexander as he attempts to relate himself to the other man, saying ‘I’m a man like you’, while further comforting him and validating the confusion he is feeling. Though he is unapologetic, too, saying ‘I won’t be ashamed’, providing an encouraging moment for those who need it.
In the slower paced tune Lucky Escape Alexander sends a barrage of insults towards an ex from a past, failed relationship, saying ‘You’re so deluded / You’re such a fake’. He is bitter and angry, and forced to watch the new, happy life of his ex play out in front of him on social media, especially since accompanied by a new partner, who Alexander likens to a ‘model’. Lucky Escape is full of petty references and sarcasm that comes across as a little strong, even through Alexander’s sweet and sing-song voice and is bound to be relatable to anyone else who has experienced the frustration that comes from seeing an ex show off their new life over social media.
The melodic interlude Here plays at only slightly over a minute and a half, but the slow and careful vocals paired with the haunting instruments make for a song that intimately exposes Alexander’s own feelings of pain and heartbreak. He powerlessly watches the one he loves move on from him and feels as if he is helpless to make a change, expressing that it’s like he’s ‘not here’. The intimacy of this track doesn’t just permeate from the lyrics, but from Alexander’s voice as well. He sounds close, and like he’s singing to you alone in a large and empty room, trusting you and only you with the deepest corners of his heart.
In recent years Alexander has been more vocal about mental health issue in society, and in Don’t Panic we are exposed to his own struggles and personal experiences with anxiety. The verses are emotionally charged, and Alexander tells us that he ‘can’t communicate’, and that his ‘body won’t obey’, emphasising the loss of control that accompanies an anxiety attack. He further says that ‘sadness is secret, ‘cause boys don’t cry’ which tragically details the fact that in the past he felt unable to ask for help because of the societal pressure placed on men to be unemotional. The quickening pace of the chorus mirrors the tensions felt during moments of great anxiety or panic, but also feature encouragement and bold, powerful statements. In the chorus Alexander takes a stand and says ‘I’m gonna stand my ground’ and claims that there is ‘nothing I won’t overcome’. This provides us with a hopeful and determined outlook for the future as Alexander once again lets his personal life take centre stage.
While this album is cleverly structured and bursting with colour there are a couple of songs that seem to fall slightly short of the mark. Karma and Preacher are two that, for me, seemed to slip somewhat into the realm of forgettable music. They blur together and leave you with no lasting impression, but they are the minority.
Palo Santo is more than just enjoyable, it is unapologetically angry, bitter, and forgiving all in one. The way that Alexander allows his homosexuality to shine through at every stage it is clear that this is an album much needed by the LGBTQ+ community. There is the nostalgia of the 90s combined with the entertainment of pop music, mixed all together with synth lines and gospel-like choirs, and throughout it all Years & Years continue to symbolise openness, acceptance, and diversity. They have achieved a wonderful, magical exploration of sexuality and human nature with Palo Santo which leaves us wondering just were they are going to take us next.
By Celia Moon