IN THE STU­DIO: YEARS & YEARS

Front­man Olly Alexander takes con­trol on the trio’s con­cep­tual fol­low-up to their plat­inum-sell­ing de­but.

Q (UK) - - Contents - LAURA SNAPES

When you want to top a plat­inum-sell­ing de­but, is a con­cept al­bum re­ally the way to go? Olly Alexander presents the de­fence.

Don’t run away, but Years & Years’ sec­ond al­bum has a con­cept. “I wanted to cre­ate this so­ci­ety that’s maybe in the fu­ture, or a par­al­lel uni­verse,” says singer Olly Alexander, call­ing Q amid “a whole cock­tail of emo­tions” on the day that the new record, ti­tled Palo Santo, is be­ing mas­tered. “It’s pop­u­lated pri­mar­ily by an­droids, and the few hu­mans that re­main are per­form­ers in cabaret shows – they’re hugely fa­mous be­cause the an­droids are ob­sessed with them.” Text­book sec­ond al­bum stuff: an al­le­gory of fame and al­most cer­tainly a kind of safety blan­ket wrapped tightly around the shoul­ders of 27- year-old Alexander, who be­came fa­mous in the af­ter­math of the trio’s 2015 bang­ing de­but al­bum Com­mu­nion while his band­mates Emre Türk­men and Mikey Goldswor­thy re­mained hap­pily anony­mous. “Oh to­tally, that’s def­i­nitely a part of it,” he con­fesses, laugh­ing. Alexander’s stature was sealed not only as a re­sult of Com­mu­nion’s suc­cess, but also via his work – BBC3 doc­u­men­taries, speeches at Stonewall events – on men­tal health, par­tic­u­larly in LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties. Be­ing there for fans while manag­ing his own de­pres­sion is a care­ful bal­anc­ing act – hence the thin veil. “I wanted to cre­ate this fan­tasy, this glamour and magic around this al­bum,” he ex­plains. “It’s also a way of sep­a­rat­ing ‘Olly from Years & Years’ from Olly, myself. It’s help­ful for me to cre­ate some dis­tance be­tween those things.” That said, ab­so­lutely noth­ing about the six songs from Palo Santo that Q hears are a wall­flower’s work: less chirpy dance-pop than Com­mu­nion, more the sainted mid­dle ground be­tween Per­fume Ge­nius and the Pet Shop Boys. The themes fit that di­vine queer lin­eage, too. Palo Santo is more sex­u­ally ex­plicit than Com­mu­nion thanks to Alexander’s in­creased con­fi­dence: Hal­lelu­jah evokes the Bobby O cuts that first in­spired Ten­nant and Lowe, and the stately Sanc­tify sub­verts re­li­gious im­agery to as­sess the straight boys who seek noc­tur­nal refuge with Alexander. Shame, dan­ger, sal­va­tion and in­tox­i­ca­tion in­ter­min­gle on these songs, pro­vid­ing a wel­come tonic to a “your fave is prob­lem­atic” cul­ture that of­ten in­sists on moral pu­rity. “I’ve al­ways been re­ally fas­ci­nated with the ten­sion be­tween want­ing to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and what those things mean,” says Alexander. “And when we’re in a re­la­tion­ship,

what do we owe each other? Those moral­is­tic ideas are fun to un­pack.” Other songs grap­ple with Alexander’s own past. “Tired of eras­ing my his­tory,” he sings on Karma – but sug­gests that “his­tory can change” on DNA, a song with lyrics about “the two-tone flash of the alarm”, and a lifechang­ing mo­ment where “the big boys beat it out of you” that could sug­gest a hate crime. “It’s some­thing that hap­pened to me when I was younger,” he says qui­etly. “I was sur­prised to sing about it, so I don’t re­ally know how to talk about it. When I was younger, I went through a re­ally dark time – cut­ting myself, want­ing to run away – and that was me think­ing back to then.” These raw themes have made Alexander the de facto face of Years & Years – he was al­ways the ob­vi­ous star, but Türk­men and Goldswor­thy have taken a step back on Palo Santo. “Ev­ery­thing was get­ting tied up with this con­cept that I wanted to pro­duce visu­ally about the mes­sage of Years & Years, and I re­ally wanted that to be me telling my story about my iden­tity,” says Alexander. “They agreed to let that hap­pen and I’ve been very grate­ful for their sup­port. If it’s a com­plete fail­ure, then it’ll all be my fault.” In that con­text – and given the ma­jes­tic na­ture of what Q’s heard so far – it’s hard to be­grudge him the sci-fi win­dow dress­ing.

“I re­ally wanted this [al­bum] to be me telling my story about my iden­tity.” Olly Alexander

(Clock­wise from top left) Years & Years in the stu­dio (p20);

Hot-de­sk­ing: “Re­lax, Olly, your vo­cals are here some­where...”

“Moral­is­tic ideas are fun to un­pack”: Years & Years (from left, Mikey Goldswor­thy, Olly Alexander, Emre Türk­men), Snap! Stu­dios, Lon­don, 4 April, 2018.

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