Concept albums have always been a tricky one. They require the listener to invest in the conviction an artist has, buying into their world and accepting their worldview as if it were plainer than something anchored in a more tangible universe.
It’s no surprise given the uneven singles that Years & Years have us on the backfoot entering Palo Santo, a realm of their own making. But they shoulder that weight in a way that’s both astonishing and remarkable, a collection that’s rich in melody and without doubt a step up from their debut.
It’s an album that relentlessly shows off moments of pop brilliance. Sanctify kicks things off with peals of drama, giving way to a moment that could be a defining one for Years & Years: the aptly titled Hallelujah. If their career were anywhere near a pit this would be Hail Mary of gigantic proportion, a proper pop banger in an age where those feel hard to come by.
From then on it’s entirely a tour of how modern pop can be done well. From the Scandalous-inspired Karma to the aching title track, Olly Alexander posits himself as a frontman that can bring weight to a genre that’s often perceived as shallow while at the same time beckoning us to the dancefloor. More to the point, Years & Years deliver a quintessentially queer album, one in which gender and sexuality are fluid and but a byline for the emotion they inspire. “Do I look good in this position, just like him?” asks Alexander, tearing down walls of shame and intimacy while exposing an acute but welcome vulnerability.
It’s hard to imagine any other male artist having the ability to balance this variety of emotion while having something very real to impart, even in a make-believe world. If there’s a heaviness to Hypnotised, there’s the glorious woo-hoo chorus of Preacher; if there’s a playful cadence in the chorus of Rendezvous, there’s the goosebump pain of the interlude Here. It’s also a rare feat for an album to make us wish that every bonus track were part of the full package, but that’s what Years & Years do on a stellar second album. Not only is every song here worth savouring, but thanks to some canny collaborations Palo Santo becomes an open-arms world that we want to return to time and time again.