Have you ever listened to a record and truly felt seen? Like the lyrics are telling stories you’ve lived, experiences akin to your own, and fully and completely could represent you? For gay men, there’s historically been a lack of that in popular music. To supplement, we gravitate towards grandiose divas, who occasionally throw us a record like “I’m Coming Out” or “Born This Way” that orbit our world, and who work with queer DJ’s to tailor make their hits better fit to our spaces. Rarely do we get one of our own telling our own stories. Olly Alexander has consistently shined in the face of those odds, and continues to do so on his first solo venture as Years & Years and third overall album, Night Call.
Years & Years sounds as much like Years & Years as ever. That’s saying something since 2 of its 3 members departed in early 2021, effectively transforming Years & Years into the solo project of Olly Alexander. The synth, dance, and electro pop elements still fuel the music. And Olly continues to flex his capacity for penning and delivering big pop hooks with massive potential at pop radio and for remixers to go to town on, all while putting his integrity as a gay man first, into his songwriting and singing.
One look at the album cover and it’s evident that Olly is laying it all out for the gays. He plays into the title Night Call, by transforming into a mermaid/siren (on some versions of the album he’s being viewed through a ship’s porthole). This electro-pop album is driven by encounters, entanglements, and relationships, with an emphasis on the former two. There’s attraction, flirtation, sex, disappointment, and retaliation. It roots itself in gay experiences that can’t be told by anyone but us.
From the album’s opening notes, it’s electro, dance, and club-ready. The mesmerizing muddy synth of “Consequences” is equal parts the song’s inspirations: Stevie Wonder and Prince. It’s steeped in retaliation. “You’re gonna have to suffer consequences,” he warns. Lead single “Starstruck” merges the instant attraction we feel for another person with the awe we experience when we encounter a celebrity. It places a regular person we’re attracted to on that celebrity pedestal, accessing that same overwhelmed sense of “I can’t help it, I get starstruck around you.” The hook works both ways, and hits just a little bit harder when one of Olly’s idols, Kylie Minogue remixes the record (which is included on the album’s deluxe edition alongside Olly and Kylie’s fall hit from her recent Disco: Guest List Edition reissue, “A Second To Midnight”).
With each album, Olly has moved closer and closer to talking about sex outright. He notably slipped a record about bottoming onto the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’ Baby, “Meteorite.” Palo Santo’s lead single “Sanctify” was also undoubtedly a sex-driven record, as was that album’s Japan bonus track, “Coyote.” As a solo act, he’s finally singing about it outright.
He’s sex-conflicted on “Intimacy,” where he concedes “your sex is heaven… but I don’t want you to be another lesson learned.” He struggles to discern what kind of sex he wants, while elsewhere he’s crystal clear. “The only thing I crave is the pain from you” he coos on the chorus of “Crave,” a record about submitting. Olly is satisfying the need for more gay men in contemporary pop who aren’t afraid to write and sing about sex, in all its different shades.
Continuing the sex-driven records, he mixes just the right amount of specificity to illustrate the not-even-a-one-night-stand experience of a hookup on “20 Minutes.” It’s casual, but the lack of extended intimacy is predicated on his fragile emotional state not being over his previous relationship. He sums it up best in the bridge, singing, “So much can happen in twenty minutes… it was love… it felt so dramatic… and it’s beautifully tragic.”
He’s still focusing on other elements of relationships as he did on previous albums. In one moment he targets a dream man who just turned out to be a sweet “Sweet Talker,” sweetened even more by a sweeping string section courtesy of electronic duo Galantis. The strings coupled with the rest of the production give this a disco-meets-90’s-dance sense. In a win for album sequencing he switches the angle on “Sooner or Later,” where he chases a “heartbreaker.” It may be the death of Olly, but he’s hell-bent on finding this man.
And then in the midst of everything else, there’s one record that has nothing to do with men, but in a pinch can apply to a romantic disentanglement. The standard edition closes with a tribute to his late grandmother, “See You Again.” Though the light thumping of the beat makes it club ready, the chord progression and vocals overflow with melancholy, not to mention lyrics like “I pretend, I’ll see you again.”. It almost manages to upstage the album’s heartbreak record “Make It Out Alive,” where “every word twists like a knife” as the album’s saddest and most emotional record. Years & Years may be down from three members to one but Olly Alexander is three for three on albums thanks to Night Call.