Years & Years – Communion | Album Review
A brave new Garage
Years and Years are a three-piece band from London. Though loosely defined as electronic, their music often strays into garage or dance territory. They wear their influences on their sleeve and are from the emerging wave of artists who take cues from the music of the 1990s. Which is sad, because it means that we are far enough removed from the decade that people are beginning to recycle its hallmarks.
The band formed in 2010 as a synthpop project between Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Turkmen, aka the background guys. They recruited Olly Alexander as lead vocalist after putting him through a rigorous audition process.
The duo overheard Olly singing in the shower one day and immediately knew that he was the man to lead Years and Years to storm the pop charts. Must have been a big shower to fit all three of them in there.
The lads employed a similarly rigorous process for deciding on the band name, I’ll leave it to Emre to recount the spellbinding origin story
“We just spitballed ideas and [Years & Years] was the only one that no one hated. I think I just said it and everyone went, ‘Oh alright.'”
Those weirdos who continued to watch Skins after its second generation, might remember our man Olly as playing Cassie’s stalker in some episodes.
Like Disclosure, many Years and Years songs are considered Future Garage, a genre that updates the garage formula with slicker production. This garage of the future owes a greater debt to electro and post-dubstep music than Hip-Hop, which heavily influenced classic Garage. This new sound is actually more Jamie xx than DJ Luck & MC Neat and has moved away from 2-Step.
Gone are the low-budget drum heavy beats, which have been eschewed in favour of strings and altered vocals. The fact that artists like Artful Dodger and Craig David are now considered influential, genre-defining musicians also makes me feel old.
“Desire”, the first single from Communion fits best into the Future Garage definition. It features the classic hallmarks, pounding bass, piano driven beat and strong R&B vocals. The sound has been updated and feels fresh because there are subtle electronic elements applied to Olly’s voice and short vocal samples have been added. Released in January 2015, the track helped Years and Years top the BBC Sound of 2015 poll of up and coming artists, ahead of James Bay, George the Poet and Stormzy.
Years and Years also take cues from the R&B dance tracks of the 1990s, especially songs like “Two Can Play This Game”, “Shy Guy” and “Back to Life”. You can hear the influence of these in the piano and vocals of “Desire”, but mixed with electronic beats.
This format was so successful that Years and Years recorded a second, shittier version of the song. They named it “Gold”, and slapped it on the album right after “Desire”, which makes its derivative nature even more apparent.
I’d like to go into more detail about the band’s early material but most of it has found its way on to Communion. The standard edition of the album includes 13 tracks, 7 of which have been released in some capacity before. Disappointing for those expecting new material for their major-label debut.
This approach does ensure that Years and Years have only included the material they know will be best received and fans are most familiar with. However, even including the bonus tracks, Communion only provides 10 new songs, which feels lazy.
This is an album that offers many potential singles, which isn’t surprising considering many of the tracks have been compiled from the band’s back catalogue. Which makes Communion feel more like a compilation than a cohesive album. This isn’t uncommon; the first The 1975 album was also compiled from previous releases and served to introduce the group to the audience.
Regardless, Communion debuted at #1 in Album Chart, outselling the rest of the Top 5 combined; making it the fast-selling debut album from a signed UK band in 2015. Add in the fact that four of the tracks went at least Gold in the UK, we are talking about a very successful album.
Many of the tracks are about love and misadventures of the heart. That is not to say the subject matter gets boring, (there are many interesting ideas throughout Communion), although the guys won’t be winning any awards for lyrical content.
“Real” features a 90s-influenced soul-house beat complete with handclaps and marching bassline. The strong groove makes it one of the club highlights from the album. It was released as a single in February 2014, and deals with Alexander letting a relationship go.
We learn from the video that Olly is gay. Which becomes very apparent at the start of the video where he has a chance encounter in the men’s room with Q from Skyfall. Things get bizarre when we see Curtis from Misfits and other minor celebrities involved in an awkward dance contest in an empty nightclub. It has to be seen to be believed.
“King” is the lead single from Communion and was released a couple of months prior to the release of the album. It served as the breakout single for the group and introduced them to the British public, as it was all over the radio. It would finish as the 11th highest selling single of 2015.
The song is heavily influenced by synth and house and fuses the two elements together as Olly sings about getting release from a controlling relationship. His chorus is a cry of freedom as the instrumental becomes brighter to emphasise the joy he feels.
Like Sam Smith, Olly is openly gay, and discusses his sexuality through his lyrics. It is encouraging to see more of this going on in pop music, and shows a growing acceptance of people on the LGBT scale.
On the subject of Sam Smith, I would like to take credit for breaking the story that Smith is gay. I revealed it to all three of my readers in May 2014. A big scoop for this here website.
Overall, Years and Years aren’t the most original of bands; many of their idea have been done before and better. The band has a talent for creating great pop records and catchy choruses that people love; the strong performance of the songs and album in the UK charts is testament to this.
Communion is a fun album, the rich production and glittering vocals fill it with joy. It’s one of the best pop records of 2015 as it displays remarkable consistency. Hence why I’m remarking on it now.
I give it 7 out of 10