REVIEW: Years and Years – Palo Santo

Written by Emma McKnight |

This past week has seen the long-awaited release of Palo Santo – the sophomore album from Years and Years. For fans of the band, such as myself, this release has felt like a long time coming – but the wait is finally over!

The London based trio consists of singer Olly Alexander (28), bassist Mikey Goldsworthy (29), and musician Emre Turkmen (30), who came together in 2010, and are widely known for popular hits such as ‘Desire’ and ‘Shine’.

This new album follows on from their 2015 number one album Communion,which gained success in the wake of the band being crowned the winners of the ‘BBC Sound of 2015’ award, as well as achieving the number one spot with their single ‘King’.

With high hopes set by the success of Communion, Palo Santo thankfully does not disappoint. In their signature style, the album is lyrically poetic and poignant, while at the same time being a collection of super catchy dance music. The energetic and atmospheric sound of this album has even been described by ‘Pitchfork’ as “theatrical and intense”.


“Themes of theatricality and performance are prominent throughout the album. “Who am I going to be when the curtain is drawn?” Olly ponders in ‘Hypnotised’.”


This question grows a double meaning when we learn about the imaginary world of ‘Palo Santo’ itself. A concept that Years and Years have created to go alongside the album, which is outlined to us in a short 15 minute film, reminiscent of Beyonce’s Lemonade or Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer. Confusing, dark, and sensual – the short film is directed by Fred Rowson and features cameos from Ben Whishaw, Judi Dench, as well as Olly Alexander himself.

Olly is no stranger to the world of acting, however, having appeared as ‘Herbert Pocket’ in Mike Newell’s 2012 remake of Great Expectations,and as ‘Toby’ in Lone Scherfig’s 2014 The Riot Clubto name a couple. The film follows the story of Olly the human who is selected to perform routinely for the androids. As NMEdescribes:


“Palo Santo has become a city on a distant planet, on which human beings are a rare commodity, worshipped and idolized by an android society. Olly, along with the final humans, is recruited to perform in a series of bizarre erotic cabarets, for an artificial master known only as The Showman.”


The society is complex, intricate, dark in places and the visuals and the creation of the landscape are detailed. Its creativity sets such a different scene to that of Communion. 

We were introduced to this new era with lead single ‘Sanctify’back in March – a sensual, bass-y, Britney-Spears-inspired anthem about loving without fear, or living behind a mask. This is a message particularly important to Olly Alexander, who is a prominent voice for LGBTQ+ issues and mental health, evidenced by his 2017 BBC documentary ‘Growing Up Gay’.

Olly’s ‘shows’ in the film can be taken out of the cabaret context, and instead looked at as a meditation on human emotion and performance. How do our feelings affect the way that we act, and how do we change the way we do things because of this? Acting and performing, feeling and truth are areas that Palo Santo routinely feeds into.

To further this, visuals aside, Palo Santo is lyrically raw and we are guided through an array of Olly’s experiences, as if the lyrics are excerpts from his own diary. Sharply worded track ‘Up in Flames’ tells us the story of how Olly was affected by his parents divorce during his childhood, “I dreamed of a life so big and tall, an escape from who I was… the past is going up in flames, and the future can be rearranged”. From this we get the sense that his world was thrown into a tailspin – “you gotta be strong boy, you gotta be tough.”

This sentiment of looking out for yourself amid chaos is matched in ‘If You’re Over Me’, the trio’s enough-is-enough single to an ex-lover. Olly asserts that “I’ve got to look out for me” while repeating the phrase “one minute you say we’re a team, then you’re telling me you can’t breathe”.  When talking about this single Olly describes it as “the kind of things I never said in a way”, a sort of second chance to go back and re-assess the situation, rather than performing under the influence of being caught up in your emotions.

This is one of the things that I love so much about the album, it is so honest, you get sucked into the narrative, and feel exactly what Olly is singing about. ‘Lucky Escape’, for example nearly never made the album, as Olly wasn’t sure if it was too personal and too bitter. He speaks of how he “dodged a bullet” declaring “you’re so deluded, you’re such a fake, and now you’ve got somebody else to manipulate.”


“Palo Santo is an undeniably intimate expression of emotion, set to the backdrop of catchy dance music – a real opportunity to dance ‘to the sound of your demons falling down’.”


There is some light in the album for love however. For me, one of the stand-out singles on the album is ‘Hypnotised’ which was written in collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann. It is such a beautiful love song, and sounds so gentle and delicate. With lines such as “surround me, body and soul” and “just one more look at you my heart has been hypnotised” you can’t help but fall in love with the song itself.

This mystical aura is echoed in title track ‘Palo Santo’ where Olly reminisces on “memories filling up with smoke”, and listening to people “speak in tongues”. In fact Palo Santo itself is a South American wood, which when burned, helps to purify spaces and clear them of bad energy. The album is sprinkled with witchy, ethereal imagery which ties in so well with the film, and helps give it the same emotional healing properties as its namesake.

As someone for whom Communion meant so much to, it is such a relief to hear that this new album is so hearty, truthful, and real. It is the most beautiful collection, and each song isso honest and easy to relate to. Palo Santo is catchy and has the typical Years and Years sound, while at the same time each song manages to sound fresh and new.

This album is certainly well worth a listen, and I cannot wait to see what this new chapter brings!