Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander isn’t one to beat around the bush. A few weeks back, he appeared on the Graham Norton Show with the ‘angels, goddesses, magical queens’ from Oceans 8, where he was asked to talk about their song ‘Meteorite’, which was written for Bridget Jones’s Baby. When writing the song, he asked himself “What would Bridget Jones want – and I thought… a big dick!” Sexual metaphors appear everywhere in Palo Santo, which is the British trio’s sophomore album. ‘Palo Santo’ literally translates to ‘holy wood’ (you can see where they’re coming from) and offers a sound entry point into an album about sin, sex, and queer desire.
The first song from the album, ‘Sanctify’, is a riff on Britney’s ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ – and her influence can be felt through the entire album. “Sanctify my body with pain” Olly sings throughout the chorus, as he grapples with a man who identifies as straight, but also wants to explore a more homoerotic side to his sexuality. The speaker, therefore, takes on the role of angel and sinner, leading the man astray toward his deviant, sexual desires, but also offering him release (“Maybe it’s heavenly”, he cries). There are BDSM undertones to the song that manifest in the music video, where we see Olly unshackled from a gold lock around his neck. ‘Sanctify’ explores the grey moral area between religion and sex, as the roles of saint and sinner become entangled.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Karma’, ‘Preacher’, and ‘Palo Santo’ riff on religious imagery and wordplay. Some instances are less successful: ‘Hallelujah’, for example, creates an equivalency between intimacy on the dancefloor with religious ecstasy, which is an overused trope in modern pop. ‘Karma’ and ‘Preacher’ fare better, blending the roles of worshipper, father, and lover with stark and emotive confessions. But it’s in ‘Palo Santo’ that the album’s queer-religious vision truly pays off. “Speak in tongues, bend me ‘til I break” he cries. The proximity between spirituality and sex becomes ever closer in lines such as “Cause I’m in love with the sin” and “This sweet intoxication shakes my soul.” The evocation of sacred and profane imagery is by no means subtle, but still manages to strike a nerve.
In a recent interview with Paper Magazine, Olly acknowledges that “We wouldn’t be where we are today without all the gay artists that have come before us and broken down so many barriers. But barriers aren’t gone.” Olly is incredibly open about his pop influences. But there are many other artists that he doesn’t mention that paved the way for Palo Santo. In the 1980s, Pet Shop Boys released ‘It’s a Sin’ during the height of the AIDS crisis and, just a few years later, Madonna released her megahit ‘Like a Prayer.’ More recently, Lady Gaga (‘Judas’), Frank Ocean (‘Bad Religion’), and Perfume Genius (‘Otherside’) have grappled with the conflict between religion and queer desire. Palo Santo comes in a long line songs that use religious imagery to explore desire that exists outside of heteronormative frameworks – but the band’s desire to push this into the mainstream, without censoring their queerness, still feels refreshing.
Earlier this year, the Met Gala’s red carpet was filled with garments evoking the opulence of Catholicism – at least by those who actually bothered to adhere to the theme of ‘Heavenly Bodies.’ Palo Santo isn’t so surface deep; but still, it manages to make religion seem sexy and cool. With their new blend of intricate wordplay and unapologetic sex positivity, Years & Years have most certainly made an impression. But can they still produce absolute bangers? Hell yes. ‘All for You’ and ‘If You’re Over Me’ are destined for chart success – and they make a strong case for Years & Years being Britain’s best pop band.
Words by Liam Taft