Following through on their BBC Sound of 2015 win earlier this year, and following up on their massive smash single ‘King,’ Years and Years have finally released their much anticipated debut album, Communion. It’s an album engineered for cross-over success, pulling on current trends and musical touchstones to craft a house-based, R’n’B inflected, just left of mainstream synth pop album, that is surprising only really because of the unity it somehow achieves. Yet Communion hangs together thanks to its ominous tone and intriguingly dark lyrics, which explore sexuality as a religious experience.
This darkness is most of what makes Years and Years so fascinating, and what helps make this full length album of chart pop such a surprisingly engaging listen. Much has been made in the press of the male pronouns used on several of the tracks as an indicator of a watershed moment for sexuality in popular music. But what really feels fresh about the album is the fluidity and vulnerability inherent in the lyrics’ dark eroticism.
At some points submissive and needy, others cruel and commanding, frontman Olly Alexander’s multifaceted sexuality stands out as the band’s most unique asset. Opening with a warning – “All the things I want I really shouldn’t get” – we’re launched into a fascinating, complex exploration of fluid male sexual identity. “Am I enough to keep your other lovers hidden?” he asks on ‘Desire.’ “If I’d been enough for you, would I be better, would I be good?” he pleads on ‘Real.’
And then this insecurity is flipped. “Are you scared? Cos I don’t think you’re worth it…” he mocks on ‘Ties.’ “I’m holy and I want you to know it” he brags on ‘Worship.’ It’s alternately seductive, commanding, heartbreaking, and drenched in the awareness of an impending implosion. It’s completely compelling.
Unsurprisingly, the all-conquering ‘King’ is the album’s best offering. Nothing on Communion can come close to topping that song’s myriad genius hooks, which is understandable given that it’s inarguably the best pop song of 2015. Thankfully, however, its compelling oddness permeates much of the rest of the album, which benefits from eclectic production that only occasionally produces disappointingly uninspired results. The primordial ooze of album opener ‘Foundation’ promises a contemplative, introspective album that never quite materialises, despite the huge and enjoyably varied influences laced through album standouts like ‘Take Shelter,’ ‘Gold’ and new single ‘Shine.’
But it’s when the album reaches for slower tempos that the strain starts to show. Songs like ‘Eyes Shut’ and ‘Without’ bring calm to the album, but Alexander’s voice works far better conveying his trademark agony and ecstasy on uptempo, anthemic bangers, and the ballads are the area in which Years and Years have least to offer, and most room to grow.
Ultimately Communion is a fun, intriguing album that’s shown up by its own sporadic flashes of brilliance. It’s these moments that suggest that we’re hearing musicians with lots to say, and the skills to express it, that just need more confidence in their vision to make truly innovative music. It’s an album that is very of the moment, which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s too much talent in Years and Years for them to be consigned to 2015 forever.