In 1987, the Pet Shop Boys got a UK #1 with “It’s A Sin,” which, despite plenty of competition, might be pop music’s definitive Catholic-guilt anthem. Over itchy disco percussion and choral drones, Neil Tennant deadpans, “In school, they taught me how to be / So pure in thought and word and deed / They didn’t quite succeed / For everything I want to do / No matter when or where or who / Has one thing in common, too.” Neil Tennant wouldn’t come out publicly until seven years after “It’s A Sin,” but the song, which also went top-10 in the US, practically spelled things out for us. It gives us the worldview of a gay man who, no matter how far he goes in the world, has a sense of shame baked deep into his soul. It’s a feeling he can’t escape.
31 years after “It’s A Sin,” a very different sort of LGBTQ British pop star has emerged. Olly Alexander has been out ever since he’s been living in public, and he’s been living in public for much of his life. Alexander started out as a teenage actor — playing Peter Pan in a West End play with Judi Dench, doing guest arcs on Skins and Penny Dreadful, starring in the Stuart Murdoch musical God Help The Girl. Years & Years, the synthpop trio that Alexander leads, released Communion, their debut album, in 2015, and they got to #1 in the UK with “King,” the first of its singles. And now they’re back with Palo Santo, an absolutely expert big-pop album that might as well be called It’s Not A Sin.
I don’t know whether Alexander grew up Catholic — Google has been unhelpful — but Alexander definitely knows his way around the imagery. Palo Santo’s first song is called “Sanctify,” and it’s about hooking up with a straight-identifying man, doing your best to reassure him that what he’s doing isn’t wrong: “In the night you come to me cuz I’m the one who knows who you are… You don’t have to be straight with me / I see what’s underneath your mask.” Its second song is called “Hallelujah,” and it’s about losing yourself in communal dancefloor transcendence, about moving with strangers “until our bodies are singing Hallelujah.” Later on, there’s “Preacher,” another song about unlearning guilt, about embracing who you are: “Ooh, are you thinking what your father would say if he saw us? / Well, you should admit it / You don’t know who you are, but you’re hoping / That I’m gonna get to love you… Let me be your salvation / Just come and take it.”
There are other ways in which Years & Years feels like some millennial evolution of the Pet Shop Boys. Like the Pet Shop Boys, Years & Years make personality-driven dance-pop. Both groups are in love with the propulsive physicality of house and techno, but both of them depart from those genres’ tendencies toward anonymity. Instead, they’re both fronted by two bona fide pop stars who carry themselves as such. But Neil Tennant was always our most detached pop star. His version of pop stardom seemed to be a wry commentary on the absurdity of the institution of pop stardom. Not Olly Alexander. Alexander is in it. He is going for it all the fucking time.
With a panache befitting a former theater kid, Alexander loses himself in his beats. His voice is electric chiffon — a breathy and instinctive whoop that projects full abandon even when he’s singing about being pissed off at an ex. There’s a bit of R&B in the way he bends syllables, but he doesn’t do the sort of George Michael white-soul thing that so many British pop singers do. Instead, he draws on gospel the way that disco divas used to do, pushing himself forever upward and outward. And holy shit, does he ever know his way around a hook.
Even more than Years & Years’ debut album Communion, Palo Santo is a product of the pop-music machine. Greg Kurstin produces and co-writes a handful of tracks, and Years & Years fit his slick, clean production style a whole lot more neatly than fellow UK synthpop trio Chvrches did on Love Is Dead, their own recent album. Pop-music kingmakers Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter also get a few co-writing credits. And even on the songs where they have no big-name collaborators, Years & Years are making grand, sweeping, clean pop music. Their sound flirts with EDM without ever giving into it, and it draws on dancehall textures and drum patterns the same way that the Pet Shop Boys used to do with Latin freestyle. There’s some kind of concept about a dystopian android-run society, but it seems to have more to do with the videos than the actual songs. The actual songs are about love — about wanting it, about missing it, about feeling pissed that it’s gone.
This is big, bold, down-the-middle pop music, music that’s probably going to get a lot of play in gyms and boutiques. It makes no pretenses at authenticity, whatever that might mean to you. But it’s music that speaks its own truth, on its own terms. It’s a series of dizzy, hooky, ridiculously catchy pop songs — pop songs that treat queerness as a simple reality, not as something to freak out about. And the same way that the Pet Shop Boys once took their Catholic guilt and made something transcendent out of it, Years & Years take their own lack of guilt, and they make something transcendent out of that. That’s beautiful.
Palo Santo is out 7/6 on Polydor. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bodega’s sharp, sardonic postpunker Endless Scroll.
• The Innocence Mission’s folky dream-popper Sun On The Square.
• Suicideyear’s expressive electronic debut Color The Weather.
• Rizzla’s apocalyptic club debut Adepta.
• Bjørn Torske’s architectural dance album Byen.
• HTRK’s experimental rocker Drama.
• Burial Invocation’s atmospheric death metal zone-out Abiogenesis.
• Immortal’s Abbath-less return Northern Chaos Gods.