Five years ago, when Sam Smith and Disclosure were still teen unknowns, fellow Brits Years & Years were an indie-leaning quintet with live guitars and drums. Now that soulful house music is among England’s chief exports, and the group has morphed into an electronic trio with a knack for emotive dance singles, it’s tempting to accuse Years & Years of opportunism. But they’ve got their own thing, and that’s one reason their debut, Communion, stands out.
True, the album does feature “Real,” “King” and “Desire,” pop-house hits that earned the band a slot opening for Smith on tour and the coveted BBC Sound of 2015 prize. But behind the dance bump, Communion is confessional synth-pop with a heart full of heavy feelings. On the electro love note “Worship” and simmering breakup ballad “Without,” frontman Olly Alexander, a 24-year-old former actor, is like Smith with messier emotions and dodgier metaphors. On “Foundation,” which features a vibe more Weeknd chill-out than weekend blowout, he sings, “All the things I want, I really shouldn’t get.” He’s plagued by feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, though he’ll lose himself in moments of ecstasy. On “Shine,” he swoons like Justin in his ‘N Sync days.
What Years & Years essentially have is a strong skill set, not a sound. Given the band’s ace melodies, emotional frankness and broad tastes (bassist Mikey Goldsworthy has touted his love for Marilyn Manson), the dancefloor is likely just one way the group will express itself, one stop en route to wherever it’s heading. Five years from now, Communion might make for a nifty postcard.