Out queer artists remain the exception in 2018. But the number who have come out or who are open about their sexuality continues to grow: Singers like Frank Ocean, Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko, Janelle Monáe, Sam Smith and Brendon Urie are good examples of how queerness plays out on mainstream pop charts. But artists on the periphery of mainstream American pop rarely get the attention given to their Top 40 counterparts.
Two new albums make the less mainstream queer artists hard to ignore: British band Years & Years and American singer Steve Grand are out with sophomore albums that grapple with sexuality in prominent, public ways — and both comfortably use male pronouns to refer to a love interests, something of a rarity even for queer artists.
Years & Years, whose debut album “Communion” (2015) made it to No. 1 Billboard spot in the U.K., released a short film to accompany its new dance pop record “Palo Santo.” And it has much in common with Janelle Monáe’s recent “Dirty Computer,” which imagines a dystopian future where sexual nonconformity is controlled and repressed. “Palo Santo” envisions a futuristic city where humans serve as cabaret-style entertainment for unfeeling androids.
In the short film, Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander performs in the android-controlled cabaret. Complete with strip teases and elaborate choreography, the short film portrays humans forced into the seemingly impossible task of making the nonhuman androids feel emotion. The not-so-veiled critique of our over-connected culture comes through clearly and one can’t help but wonder if Alexander wrote parts of the album during a “Black Mirror” binge.
Lyrically, Years & Years navigates this sci-fi universe by way of religious language. “Sanctify,” the album’s lead single, is an up-tempo, sensual track with relatively sparse instrumentation — the verses rely heavily on percussion. The layered harmonies and vocal trills are reminiscent of early 2000s boybands like ‘NSYNC. But there’s something else at play, a subversive sensuality filtered through religious vocabulary. As Alexander croons sweetly in the chorus, “Sanctify my body with pain/sanctify the love that you crave.”
This interesting — to say the least — marriage of religious expressions and queer sexuality occurs over and over throughout the album. In “Hallelujah,” an upbeat dance track, he ties the word to the body of a lover: “Until our bodies are singing hallelujah.” The repurposing of religious verbiage is something of a band trademark: “Communion” was not a haphazard choice of title for their debut album. And many of the tracks on “Palo Santo” reflect this tendency, with titles such as “Sanctify,” “Hallelujah” and “Preacher.” Alexander is clearly invested in pushing lyrical boundaries.
The catchiest track on the album is “If You’re Over Me,” a cheery dance track with a bouncy synth hook. Consequently, it’s the song Alexander performs at the cabaret in the short film. The lyrics address familiar breakup themes: “Well you should set me free/baby if you’re over me.” But the song is irresistibly danceable and has already been performing well on the charts, arriving at No. 6 on the Billboard Official U.K. Singles Chart.
But the album isn’t all dance. As with the “Communion,” “Palo Santo” shows a great deal of variety. The title track plays with various rhythms and is piano driven. In “Here,” the most subdued track on the album, Alexander relies on his upper register and layered harmonies to create a haunting, ethereal sound. The simplicity of the lyrics add to the effect: the chorus is just a simple repetition of the phrase “I’m not here.”
“Palo Santo” stands out not only for its high production values — the costumes and choreography — but also for its seamless flow. Each track is meticulously placed. The album’s overall sound and Alexander’s vocals are at times reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s on “FutureSex/LoveSounds” (2006). And it stands as a reminder that queer artists need not sacrifice musical quality for a strong concept.
If Years & Years trends continental, edgy and futuristic, Steve Grand is a fully homegrown product. Following the success of his 2015 album “All American Boy,” the singer from suburban Illinois has been a fixture of the gay community, regularly performing at summer concerts in Provincetown and at Pride festivals, and relishing the opportunity to sing in his underwear — almost as much as his enthusiastic fans.
Much like his previous album, “Not the End of Me” bounces between piano-driven pop/rock and country. But the album cover shows an unsmiling, bearded Grand, who seems ready to show a deeper part of himself. Writing as a gay man, the songs deal with relationships, hook-up culture and cheating.
There are many things to like about Grand’s new album. His lyrics are wonderfully conversational and he’s an excellent storyteller. His songs have a refreshing down-to-earth quality. Though the reverb is often overdone and he’s sometimes more than a little cheesy, there is something almost irresistible and believable about Grand’s music.
The single “Walking” is a synthesizer-heavy dance track. It’s a fun, catchy song that is likely to find its way into nightclubs. It comes closest to the youthful, carefree feeling of songs like “Better Off” and “All-American Boy” from the previous album.
“Ain’t It Something” has the feel of Jason Mraz song, a summer romance with a beach vibe. As Grand charmingly puts it, “You walked in with that grin, as if proud of the job you did/Hiding that southern accent, but I know a ‘good-ole’ boy’ when I see him.”
But Grand is at his best when he’s behind the piano. And the more reflective material on “Not the End of Me” gives him the chance to do just that, particularly on tracks “Don’t Let the Light In,” “Anti Hero,” “All I Want” and “Can’t Go Back.”
Years & Years and Steve Grand exemplify queer artists outside of the mainstream who are unafraid to make sexuality a central theme of their music. And in all likelihood, they are just the tip of the iceberg.