“Black night, the wheel turns. All citizens return to me. Welcome to my sanctuary: welcome to Palo Santo.” Back in April, Years & Years dropped the trailer for their long-awaited sophomore album, narrated by none other than Judi Dench (!!!), cast as a mysterious overlord of the dystopian future that Years & Years have imagined. ‘Palo Santo’ is Spanish for ‘holy wood’, and is burned to cleanse oneself – and that’s certainly something Years & Years needed. Since their hugely successful debut Communion, the band has been fraught with creative disagreement, and it’s something of a miracle that we even got a second album at all.
And thank the Holy Trinity, Palo Santo was more than worth the wait. It’s stacked with the euphoric dance-pop tunes we’d come to expect from their debut, but they’ve also dabbled in noughties R&B and even include a near-acapella album closer. That’s not to say that every risk taken on the record fully pays off. Acapella album closer ‘Here’ is enjoyably bold, but proves a little laboured. ‘Preacher’ sees lead singer Olly Alexander coo to his lover to “come on out”, and takes aim at the oppressive clutches of religion. Alexander even frames himself as the snake of Eden – the source of temptation, relishing his own hedonism. But for all its chutzpah, ‘Preacher’ also proves a little melodically lacklustre. Admittedly, even ‘not great’ Years & Years is still much better than the rest of what’s in the charts, but luckily the rest of the record is much stronger.
Palo Santo really enjoyably dips into noughties R&B – ‘Sanctify’ and ‘Karma’ have really strong, rhythmic hooks. The former was the album’s criminally-underrated lead single, and proves as hypnotic and subversively sensual now as it was upon first listen. ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘All for You’ tick the boxes for the glorious dance-pop one expects of a Years & Years record, but the latter in particular transcends expectation. Not only is its hook rock-solid, but it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of eloquence in achieving that.
But perhaps my favourite songs on the record are its sweeping, dramatic moments. Listening to ‘Hypnotised’ last night proved dreamy and captivating, even in spite of being interrupted by the harrowed wails of my parents watching England losing the World Cup. But title track ‘Palo Santo’ is the record’s peak – ethereal and other-worldly, it best captures the alternate universe that Years & Years create in the short film that accompanies the record. It’s also notable that the track was co-written with Sarah Hudson, who co-wrote the best ballad on Camila Cabello’s most recent album ‘Something’s Gotta Give’. And we love a popstar with good taste.