‘Palo Santo’ literally translates to holy wood, which might give you a clue to where, thematically, things are heading for Years & Years on album two. It’s preoccupied with sex. Specifically, lead singer and former DIY coverboy Olly Alexander’s preoccupation is homoeroticism and queerness, as he bathes in sexually subversive waters.
Album opener and lead single ‘Sanctify’ consecrates gay sex; it’s an ode to the erotic entrapment of straight-identifying men, albeit with devilish and slimy early ‘00s R&B beats. ‘Rendezvous’ similarly leaves love at the door, staccato synths and gaping bass punctuating lyrics about a confusing Grindr hook-up, while ‘Hallelujah’ is a strobing sexual reconnaissance mission.
Like on the band’s previous record, Alexander still manages to deftly stew together pain and euphoria; the bouncy ‘If You’re Over Me’ and the propulsive ‘All For You’ are bangers of the highest order that also ache with despair and heartbreak. However, what ‘Palo Santo’ has that ‘Communion’ lacked is an inventive ballad. ‘Hypnotised’, a delicate and unworldly highlight, and ‘Lucky Escape’, a palpable moment of agony and anguish, are elevated because of their intricate production (they also boast the best vocal performances from Alexander’s career).
The title track, though, is where Olly’s sermon is delivered. Here melancholia and desire battle with volatility, a hazardous tug-of-war where sexual fulfilment conflicts with loneliness and morality. The base piano is joined by skittish beats and lashings of falsetto, giving the song sweaty urgency.
In a thrilling conclusion, ‘Up In Flames’ sees Olly in unmarked territory as he grieves his relationship with his estranged father over Greg Kurstin’s ominous production and pacey beats. It’s a candid end to an overwhelmingly intimate record that makes you wonder just what Years & Years could be capable of next.