album review: palo santo

Written by Raven Yamamoto

Known for the R&B/’90s pop hybrid sound we all loved on Communion, Years & Years is back and better than ever with the release of their second studio album Palo Santo. With hit singles like “Sanctify” and “If You’re Over Me” that topped the charts in the months leading up to the album’s release, Palo Santo was highly anticipated by fans as they were given a teasing glimpse of what to expect. And if new music wasn’t enough, the group also put out a short film of the same title on YouTube. Set in the premise of a dystopian world where a race of androids kidnap humans for entertainment, the film fills in the gaps of past music videos and acts as a cinematic counterpart to the record. In other words: Palo Santo, as a whole, was an answer to fans’ prayers and then some.

Just like the synth-pop anthems we all know and love from the British trio’s debut album Communion, Palo Santo is full of dance-worthy tunes with lyrics about love, desire and heartbreak. Complete with eleven tracks (fourteen on the deluxe version), the album reflects the simultaneously nostalgic yet modern electronic sound the trio is known for as well as their heavy use of religious references and themes in their lyrics. Verses about salvation, forgiveness, temptation, and praise are found in the lyrics of nearly every song on Palo Santo, it is as if each track is a hymn or prayer addressed to someone in particular. With song titles like “Sanctify,” “Hallelujah,” and “Preacher” alone it is clear that such imagery is part of the group’s brand and acts as an artistic trademark that sets Years & Years apart from other artists.

What separates Palo Santo from Communion, however, is how Palo Santo can be interpreted to have a complete storyline from start to finish. While each song is perfectly enjoyable on its own, it can be said that the album’s tracklist is structured chronologically. If you listen to the track list in order, Palo Santo is arguable about a less-than-perfect relationship and its aftermath. The tone and mood of the melodies change as you get further down the tracklist and seem to reflect the different stages of someone dealing with a relationship having come and gone.

With “Sanctify,” the first track on Palo Santo, the album starts at the lustful, foot-tapping beginning stages of being with someone new, albeit behind closed doors. The album then leads into the next track, “Hallelujah,” which seems to be cut from the same thread, utilizing lyrics about falling hard and fast into the physical aspect of a relationship in the beginning stages. “All For You” and “Karma” is where things seem to take a turn and where the virtue of the relationship comes into question with the lyric: “I don’t really think you care / You played your game, it was all for you.”

We are then taken to a much slower, more somber sound with “Hypnotised,” a heavily vocal track meant to emphasize lyrics about wanting to be loved, even if it means only being wanted by another for physical intimacy. This desire to “make things work” and believe that this is really love is immediately followed by “Rendezvous,” a much more upbeat and angry realization that this love is toxic and unfair: “Now I think you’re losing something critical / Maybe our love is just a physical rendezvous.”

Then of course comes the hit song ‘If You’re Over Me,’ the almost mockingly catchy tune calling out the hypocrisy of a lover who ends it but won’t leave. It’s here where we can assume the relationship is in fact finally over: “Yesterday you said I’m the one / But now you say you’re done / Stop telling me what I need / Baby, if you’re over me.”

Having finally broken free, “Preacher” and “Lucky Escape” both describe what it’s like for a person to understand that they made the right choice leaving someone. Lyrics about seeing an ex-lover with someone new point to the perspective of someone who is no longer under another’s spell, knowing they haven’t changed: “Let’s not pretend like we didn’t have any problems / And I’m back to being angry again.”

The album’s title track, “Palo Santo,” comes after and it’s unclear exactly what happens in this part of the story. It can be interpreted that at this point, a person fresh out of a relationship has sought comfort by throwing themselves at another or by going back to their previous, poisonous lover. The next song “Here,” seems to reflect the latter after the relationship inevitably ends badly again: “You take a week, all the time that you need / Shattering glass and a lover or three.”

“Here” is the final track on the standard version of Palo Santo, but serves as an interlude to the three bonus tracks (“Howl,” “Don’t Panic,” and “Up In Flames”) on the album’s deluxe version. Continuing the narrative of an ended relationship, these songs make up the story’s final stage: healing. “Howl” is about finally feeling what a relationship has taken from you, despite being happy that it’s over. The tone of sadness and hurt heard in “Hypnotised” earlier on the album resurfaces here and serves as an introduction to “Don’t Panic,” a song detailing what it’s like to remember who you are after acknowledging your pain and moving on.

The album’s final song, “Up In Flames,” serves as the perfect ending note to the entire journey. Almost triumphant in how upbeat it is, the track is a recollection of the entire relationship now that an ex’s new relationship is falling apart. Here, the universe has done its due diligence: “Our past is going up in flames / The future will be rearranged.”

Authentic and raw from beginning to end, Palo Santo is an unparalleled body of work that further distinguishes Years & Years as artists and what they strive to do with their music: tell their story. We might not have gone through the exact things described in the events of Palo Santo, but its themes hit close to home for many. Navigating heartbreak, desire, insecurity, and pain are all a part of being human and Years & Years has used the power of their craft to connect the people affected by making a record for them. One thing’s for sure: they’ve put out an album that fans will be listening to for years and years to come.

Take a listen below:

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