My first tryst with “musi-sexual” beings, like the host of this blog, has been a delayed affair. Prior to this, I greatly admired female chanteuses who belted out those ballads like prima donnas but of a generation who sing of cigarettes and cocaine, aggressive monogamy and failed romances, club-hopping and threats to the man in the picture (more precisely, the musical narrative) by coming over with her “clique”. While I immensely enjoyed Beyoncé doing her “little thang” as a Single Lady, doing every African-American Girl Who Has Been Wronged routine (namely, bobbing your head in a circular motion, the “umm-hmms”, and “I’m closing the car door on you” gesture—Key and Peele are your mediators there), listening to crystalline voices singing about revenge, loneliness or satisfactory between-the-sheets action, one does get awfully bored. That flawless mezzo-soprano Dion who I know will inject every known human emotion to the francophonic stylings of English songs, doesn’t intrigue me anymore, I’m ashamed to admit.
Perhaps that’s why, in an era of the Underwoods and the Clarksons, when I first saw the music video for Chasing Pavements in 2009, as a thirteen-year-old, for the first time I was intrigued by the vulnerability of a contralto that was Adele. She was husky, almost as big as I, and had no complex dance routines. Her voice could crack or go out of tune in the middle of a ballad like Hometown Gloryand I loved that unreliability. It was as close to listening to Etta James who would sound as if she were mourning, wailing, yet was a fickle mistress of her vocality. As a former fan of Disney-inspired pop that stripped singers of the ability to sound harmed or flawed, those little moans and segues into falsetto, the jar when you blow into your microphone, and acoustic live performances (which rivalled the acoustically challenged select pop stars of the previous decade), Adele, at the risk of sounding my age, blew my effing mind.
I tried to persuade my best friend on the bus to become a fan, and she concluded, “She sounds like a man.” Six Years and Rolling in the Deep later, I don’t get credit anymore for possibly being her first fan in a fifty-thousand-mile radius. Oh well.
Olly Alexander, of Years & Years, has held a curious fascination for me. He isn’t the Sam Smithy bluesy baritenor one would expect a fan of Norah Jones, Ray Charles or Ella Fitzgerald to celebrate. That same best friend on the bus was reached out to once again, and I was certain that her gender-reversing judgement would stand true for Olly, too, which might explain my interest in him. I was partly correct; “He sounds like the lovechild of Tracy Chapman and Michael Jackson,” she concluded. He also happens to be a musical lovechild of genres: synthpop and veracious balladry. A doomed combination, one would assume. Who really wants to listen to a lovelorn young man on the dance floor of a nightclub?
However, their debut album, Communion, which was released only a few weeks ago, puts layers and layers of electronic music that is the result of the laptop tweaks of a former architect, Emre Turkmen and the “synth”-etic tappings of the Australian in Years & Years, Michael Goldsworthy. It does not render Olly’s ardent, albeit immature and, oftentimes, generic narration of sex or unrequited love redundant.
Olly’s voice has that bipolar quality of serenading you with his lower registers when he sings about having sex and inflicting you with pangs of memory (manufactured or otherwise) when he launches into his belting range. Above all, in his live performances, he is an impressive pianist, no Mozart, but enough for you to notice that he too has a quivering voice that can crack any second, but it seldom falters. The precariousness of his vocal gymnastics makes listening to him live a thrilling experience. The rise and fall of his acoustic performance to the danceable Take Shelter (he sings the song while playing a grand piano without Mikey or Emre) convinces you that his is a mind and heart readily susceptible to love and despair, perhaps even simultaneously. And the marvellous thing is he doesn’t seem aware of the volatileness of his own emotions. His live performances (when done away with the electronica) brings to mind Ben Whishaw’s indecisiveness as Richard II. Whishaw also featured in the music video for Real and played Olly’s elder brother, a.k.a. John Keats, in a motion picture named Bright Star.
Why then is the electronica important? Some stubborn critics who prefer stripped down (literally and otherwise) pop and rock artistes to another synth pop band, Clean Bandit (who employ classical instruments like the violin and the cello into their electronic loops and beats) will be as horrendous as the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. But, no genre is above the other. The electronica complements Olly’s volatile lyrics with their own structural volatileness and the variety of, for want of a better word, noises. The rhythmic popping of electronic noises is the audial equivalent of that scene when Remy, in Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille,teaches his brother to equate his experience with a cube of cheese with a background of swirling colours loosely adapting Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Both Adele and Years & Years have achieved mainstream success precisely because of their genre-transcending abilities. Traditionally, a dance song does not carry a lyric from a male frontman like so: “Who wouldn’t want it when he looks like that?” A rhetoric question that confirms Olly’s homosexuality is a no-no anywhere but in an obscure niche in a London pub on an open mic night.
“I’ve grown up listening to women sing about men and men sing about women in this kind of direct, potent way,” he says in a interview with Metro Weekly. “I wanted to be able to translate my own sexuality — my own experiences — in a song, and be able to say “boy” and “him”…On a larger scale, we should be having different kinds of relationships and different sexual dynamics represented in popular music. There’s lots of different ones, not just male and female, and I think people are ready to consume that. We don’t need to be force-fed just one dynamic. It’s boring and doesn’t represent the way people are now”.
While Sam Smith came out in a revealing interview, Olly prefers not to expose himself with a troupe following him as he enters our consciousness with double jazz hands and a rainbow T-shirt. His use of male pronouns for lovers is delicate and intricate, yet something matter-of-factly, as mainstream as a heterosexual pronoun, and not as erotic and explicit as Katy Perry’s excitement at having tasted the “cherry chopsticks” of a member of her own sex.
A major part of Olly’s allure lies in his complete disregard for syntax and grammar and a distinctive hip-hop accent on social media when, in fact, in some of his early songs he sings of sycamore trees. His eyebrows (which Julie Andrew might call “Bushman eyebrows” as she did in Princess Diaries) are a rarity which I share too. And so is his mop of brown hair, now dyed platinum blonde: an uncanny resemblance to what happens when you make a wig with uncooked Maggi noodles. Before his current makeover, Olly’s hair was so frizzy, you would think he could play Cosmo Kramer’s illegitimate British son on Seinfeld.
His childlike fidgetiness during interviews and the gap between his teeth (his Instagram bio reads: “i got gaps between all ma teeth”) makes him an anti-thesis to these teenaged popstars like Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan, who have all been blessed by Aphrodite and who make me wince at my reflection when I am walking past windows of expensive stores. I do have a feeling that they tend to themselves with a certain degree of dedication; no one goes through puberty looking like skinny Renaissance male subjects.
Having receded from absorbing the melancholic blues during my late evening walks, I have become more tolerant of electronica and dark alternative pop. Emre Turkmen and Michael Goldsworthy are manna from heaven for those wayward listeners, like yours truly, who are too smart for bubblegum pop and too feather-brained for rock operas. Their musical influencers belong to a spectrum as wide as Jeff Buckley and Marilyn Manson to Destiny’s Child and Sean Paul. Michael Goldsworthy’s love for the 80s synthesiser-infused discopop, Olly’s admiration for 90s popstars and rappers, and Resul Emre Turkmen’s mathematical acumen and obsession with structure and auditory patterns has made Years & Years a truly accessible band who cater to wide musical tastes, if not as generously obvious: locating the meshed influences of the trio could be like finding three needles in a haystack of commercial music.
Perhaps, as many critics are touting them as the next big thing in music (they won the BBC Sound of 2015, an annual poll previously won by the likes of Adele, Ellie Goulding, Haim, and Sam Smith), mainstream reviewers’ lukewarm response to their electronica album, Communion, can be done away with by calling it snobbery, some encouragingly expecting greater things of them in the near future where Communion would be deemed a “postcard” in the grand chronology. But, to be immensely outspoken in a genre where popularity is deemed synonymous with conventionality, is nothing short of brave. The more naïve individuals might conclude that it is fashionable these days to be non-heterosexual and that they specialise in house music is an added bonus (who cares what gender you are when you are rubbing up against someone in the half-light on the dance floor) but Years & Years is a band that factors in geometry (Emre), musical history (Mikey), and an adolescent bipolarity (Olly) and consequently does away with generation, gender, and genre.
Even if they fade from the popular consciousness, they will be my musical James Baldwins and E.M. Forsters whom I will “dance to and cry to at once” (Olly describing his music in an obscure interview that I cannot recall).
Aditionally, Olly’s love for that one pair of white sneakers has convinced us all that he, like most of us, has that one pair of footwear we wear to almost everywhere. It might make us look taller, it might go with any (or no, ahem!) clothes, or it’s just so easy to put on and take off that if someone were to immortalise us as a cartoon, those shoes would become our Jughead Crown or Squarepants. These traits make him an EveryMusicMan who will be around to sing the blues that we can dance to for quite a while.
How did you like Rohit’s passionate entry about upcoming band Years and Years (and Olly Alexander’s equally intriguing hair)? Here is Rohit himself:
You may also know him as the author of the Mug of Melancholy series. Why do I have such geniuses in my class again?
Here’s what he wrote for:
See you on Sunday with Madhumati’s post about Nirvana!