I recently had a 13 course meal. The best thing about this meal was that I loved every course, some a bit more than others. However, not a single course I had would go down in history as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘wildly spectacular’. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. If every course gets it right, then that is a feat in itself. But it also makes you wonder what difference it would make if the chefs just focused on making sure that one course stood above the rest.
If you’re wondering what that has to do with Years & Years, then let me put you out of your misery: this 13 course meal is their debut album, Communion. There are many things that make their debut absolutely brilliant, the foremost of these being that there isn’t a single song that I thoroughly disliked. Front to back, this album is rather stellar due to flawless production on almost every track and the golden, syrup-like vocals of Olly Alexander. To be honest, you really can’t hate anything about this album. There are a lot of tracks that stick longer than others, such as the reggaeton-influenced “Take Shelter”, with a radio-ready chorus and the rather understated yet lush 808 beat coupled with an array of whispering synths. It’s practically the epitome of a great pop song: catchy lyrics, simple yet subtle production and a slightly progressive edge. A lot of songs on the album follow the same template, including the religiously-themed “Worship”. Part of me wishes Years & Years stuck with this topic and spun it into a concept album. But for what it’s worth, that probably would be grating.
And that’s why tracks like “Ties” work perfectly. The 1980s style intro segues into a pulsating rhythm and sweeping synths, sounding as if it were snatched from a Will Young or an Ellie Goulding recording session. But it doesn’t feel like someone’s leftovers. The lyrics on this record may be more confessional than most, but it works well because these tracks allow for that emotion rather than hinder them. Olly sounds perfectly sassy on the aforementioned track, telling the protagonist “Are you having fun / I tell you I’ve my secrets too / I go hunting for someone like you.” Plenty of moments such as this are a dime a dozen, from the introspective yet self-blaming “Real” to the slightly lust-obsessive thoughts on “Worship”.
But if you’re looking for some pop perfection, this album displays it in droves. The breakdown in “King” does practically nothing to hamper the feel-good ‘90s-influenced production. Synth pad? Check. Harmonizing melody? Check. Catchy chorus? Check. An easy standout, “King” has the right balance of sweet-yet-assertive vocals with an updated version of the perfect house track from yesteryear. Think Disclosure, but with the production intricacies replaced by perfect pop song writing. The house influences only get better on “Desire”. Rather a replica of the genre than using it as inspiration, Two Inch Punch help push this track into the stratosphere with vocal samples and those ever famous house chords that you won’t hear in any other genre. Olly’s vocals fit perfectly on this track and don’t falter on those high notes. His vocals also seem surer than on any other track on this album, which only proves that ‘taking it back’ only pushes his vocals further into the spotlight. Other standouts, like the indie pop of “Border” or the Michael Jackson/Ne-Yo inspired “Gold” allow for Years and Years to prove that imitation is the highest form of flattery when done with grace. My only gripe on “Gold” would be those Florence Welsh vocals that almost set the entire track up for failure as well as Olly’s failure to raise his vocal game to the levels on the outstanding opener, “Foundation”.
However, things take a huge tumble when Years & Years try not to stick to their confessional-electronic niche. Any attempt to humanise the production or push Olly’s voice to its edges, as is done on “Eyes Shut”, just end up sounding like a poorly conceived Sam Smith demo. Even the melody bears an extremely odd resemblance to “Stay With Me”. To be fair, at least tracks as “Memo”, “Without” and “Eyes Shut” do give Years & Years a sensibility that few can replicate. But they don’t give it all they possibly could. Maybe if there was more avant-garde production on these tracks or if the vocal ability of Olly was a lot stronger (see: belting instead of bleating). If they really want to continue to do ballads, “1977” on the deluxe edition is a great place to start. Leaning a lot closer to the timbre of James Blake than James Morrison, 1977 features a minimal beat made up of clicks, 808 drums and moody synths.
If you’re looking for an album that is genre-bending or stretches your imagination, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. Because this album is not meant to reinvent the wheel, but make that wheel work better. And Years and Years seem to know how to do that, releasing an album of instantly catchy and accessible pop music. I only hope that second time round, they do something different. Delivering a decent pop album only goes so far in a world shared with FKA twigs, The Weeknd and Disclosure.