IN THE STUDIO: YEARS & YEARS
Frontman Olly Alexander takes control on the trio’s conceptual follow-up to their platinum-selling debut.
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.