Years & Years and Religious Subversion

The idea for this post came to me immediately after my first listen of Years and Years’ sophomore album, Palo Santo, which was released at the beginning of July. However, I thought it best to allow the music to marinate in my mind for a little while longer, and allow the ideas explored on the album to soak deeper into my subconscious. Now, having spent a month recycling those same ideas, and words over and over in my mind, I see them with an even sharper clarity.

In the three years since the release of Y&Y’s debut album, Communion, Olly Alexander has become somewhat of an LGBT icon. His assertion on and off stage of his sexuality is  deeply empowering to me. Moreover, the lead single, Sanctify, of their sophomore album stroke a chord with me. The song examines the unrequited, shameful love which characterizes a relationship between a heterosexual and homosexual man. If one reads the lyrics of Sanctify as a poem, religious undertones dominate the entire narrative. Blatant lyrics, like that of

Give me your confession, saying
Lately, life’s been tearing you apart

overshadow more subtle assertions of sexuality found later in the song.

You don’t have to be straight with me
I see what’s underneath your mask

Yet, these religious fixations are not only contained within the album’s lead single, but are cast throughout it’s 36 minute listen. Song names like that of Preacher, Hallelujah, and even Palo Santo [meaning “holy wood” in Spanish], directly reference religious iconography. The album then, in my opinion, can be thought of as a subversion of religion and it’s various icons in an attempt to explore the experience of the modern gay man. The word “sanctify” means to make something legitimate by means of religious ceremony. The ceremony, in Y&Y’s case, refers to the sexual act committed by two men, one of whom considers themselves heterosexual.

Themes of religious subversion can even be found in their debut album, Communion – which in religion, refers to one’s initial communication with God. Olly Alexander has spoken before about how the content of the first album reflects the first 23 years of his life. Therefore, could it not be argued that communion, in this case, refers to Alexander’s first encounter with other gay men? Perhaps the harsh electronic sound of the first album suggests that this encounter occurred on the dance-floor of night-club. Who knows. Songs within the album, such as Worship, again, point towards the field of religion as a means of exploring sexuality. Lyrics, such as

I’m not gonna tell nobody bout’ you

seem to occupy the same subject area as Sanctify, suggesting a requirement to hide another’s sexuality.

I understand that these lyrics are ambiguous, and that I may be reading too deep into them. However, the idea of using religion as a means of exploring sexuality intrigues me greatly. I feel empowered by my own sexuality when I see people like Olly Alexander attempt to dismantle religious structures, and subvert their historically hateful teachings to examine his own experience as a gay man.

I’m not sure if this was Alexander’s intention when he began writing music, but even so, I’m glad I found it nonetheless.

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