If the professional achievements of the past winners of BBC’s annual Sound Of… Award are anything to go by, then 2015’s awardee, Years & Years, could be looking at the cross-continental success of their predecessor Sam Smith, or potentially come close to the record-breaking sales of another previous victor Adele. Logically speaking, it seems almost inevitable that the London trio will achieve similar commercial accomplishments. Analysing the outfit’s own musical trajectory also reveals a history that has continuously adapted in line with the UK’s exports of the moment. Starting out as a live guitar-driven indie quintet, Years & Years eventually embraced the industry’s current penchant for ‘soulful electronica’. Whether the move was opportunism or genuine growth, it was a clever adaptation that has produced a bunch of infectious, pop-kissed house tracks. Fronted by former actor Olly Alexander, Years & Years’ debut album Communion is collection of music that explores the masks of the several trends of the moment; well-mannered house and alternative R&B co-exist alongside soulful balladry and gospel-tinged pop, an enjoyable exercise in shape-shifting that could be the remnant of Alexander’s promising acting career.
The appropriately titled Foundation opens the debut with hypnotic, pulsating synth lines, buoying Alexander’s undeniably striking voice. The electronic ostinato is both spectral and frenzied as Alexander is hounded by dampening inadequacy and regret. Tracks Real and Shine reveal the groups’ aptitude for irresistibly effective pop-composition, a talent that saw single King debut at the top of the UK charts. The anthem exists in an alluring space between pounding festival banger and polished charm, whose synthesised motif is just as singable as its insanely infectious chorus.
While tracks like Desire and Gold try to replicate the intoxicating embrace of King, they don’t reach the same levels of insistence. While both tracks feature some really beautiful melodic writing, they are accompanied by musical ideas so unobtrusive you’ll be hard-stretched to remember them the next morning, regardless of alcohol intake. Take Shelter is a seductive, corporeal musical exploration, whose dancehall beats and dreamy layering hint at the outfit’s declared inspirations (Diplo and Flying Lotus, for example). Elsewhere, Communion feels slightly lacklustre. Worship indulges in the vices of the 90s boyband era, unashamedly shallow and youthful, while the grand gestures Without and Eyes Shut would feel even more generic and empty without Alexander’s ethereal delivery.
The stunning fragility of Memo brings Communion to a heartrending close, as Alexander is plagued by an impossible infatuation with a straight male friend. Gentle piano chords and sparse percussion accompany shivering melismatic phrases and lip-quivering moments as Alexander begs the object of his desire, “Let me take your heart / Love you in the dark / No one has to see.” There’s a dark underbelly in their lyrics that tragically shines through in Memo, but never quite emerges through their predominantly slick sound. It’s a juxtaposition that is at times interesting, but at others leaves me begging for something grittier and murkier to surface from their sleek brand of polite house. In Communion Years & Years’ body is given to us, to take and eat, but we need their blood too.