Album Review: Years & Years – Night Call

[Polydor; 2022]

Arriving years and years after the criminally underrated Palo Santo is the invigorated return of Years & Years – who have transitioned from band to lead singer Olly Alexander’s solo act – and their new album Night Call. Olly’s decision to continue carrying the Years & Years moniker already prophesied that the music wouldn’t be a drastic change of direction. Indeed, Night Call isn’t a deviation from past releases but rather an amplification – the songs are more maximal, more bombastic and unapologetically poppier than before.

Primarily taking influence from the emotive, uplifting and melodic dance music that frequently doused the charts of the late-90s and 2000s, Night Call sweats in a time-travelling discotheque. Embodying that Nostalgic Charm™ much like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, RAYE’s Euphoric Sad Songs and more recently, The Weeknd’s Dawn FM, this is further proof that pop’s current infatuation with the past and reformatting it within modern contexts endures.

“Consequences” is an incandescent robotic track that opens the album on the mise-en-scene of a breakup. Following similar energy to previous Years & Years tracks like “King” and “Lucky Strike”, the song is a fun middle-finger to a toxic partner (“I was waiting for the moment you would change / But that moment never came / You’re gonna have to suffer consequences”). Olly enjoys a lyrical blatancy when it comes to calling out people and such blatancy gives this track a more victorious feel rather than bitterness.

Amplifying this newfound triumph is following track and lead single “Starstruck”, an instant punch of kaleidoscopic synths and funkiness with a killer anthemic chorus (“I can’t help I get starstruck around you / What can I do?”). It works well as both a song about romance or self-love – if the music video is any indication, Olly wrote this about the latter – and, considering its placement after “Consequences”, gives the listener post-breakup encouragement. With its uplifting lyrics of freedom and self-treating (“Don’t need your cash / I got my own to spend it on ya if I like”), this feels more appropriate to Night Call’s purpose: a fun time.

The title track is a triumphant and euphoric ode to the booty call that accentuates Olly’s melodic vocals and compels with its sexual confidence (“You got my number and I know you want this / So push the button, make a move.”) It employs a cocky, hedonistic charm as Olly patiently and assuredly waits for his phone to go off while celebrating someone wanting him. On the opposite side of the coin, “Sweet Talker” – a collaboration with dance production duo Galantis – also elates with its glorious breakdown of fast-paced strings and is one of those tunes that encourages cathartic crying on the dancefloor. This track demonstrates the album’s primary charm well: that we can hear lyrics about being betrayed and the self-deprecating stupidity of buying into someone’s deception and having it converted into pure joy.

While the album’s energy is mostly consistent, there are some deviations that give the listener time to catch their breath and refresh their drink – without slipping into predictable balladry. For example, the sensual, R&B-influenced “Intimacy” feels a little bit sludgy in production during the verses but the cosmic unfurling of the chorus proves a redeeming quality. “Strange And Unusual” is an album highlight that achieves what “Intimacy” attempts so much better. As both galactically erotic and murky ode to sexual attraction, and with production that sounds taken from a whirring, futuristic factory, the track allows a sense of nervous anticipation that accompanies encountering someone new (“Confusion times a million / Constantly chasing us / The end of the beginning / Swear your skin is dangerous”). However, the overall sense of the pursuit of pleasure is evident and still allows a more lyrical cohesion to be maintained.

To its credit, nothing on Night Call is particularly unpleasant on the ears, there are some weak spots that are overshadowed by their punchier counterparts on the tracklist. The comparatively bland production of “Muscle”, for example, with its repetitive bassline alongside its rather trite lyrics (“Know I want to take a bite / Know I that I want it now”) may be a kitsch anthem for liking what you see, but is ironically the album’s weakest point. “Make It Out Alive”, while being a nice heartbreak midtempo utilising 80s rhythms and highlighting Olly’s soulful vocals, also doesn’t quite enthral or capture interest – if anything, this may encourage people in the club to take their long-delayed bathroom break. However, even the more emotional tracks like “Make It Out Alive” and “20 Minutes” never completely leave the pop stratosphere – they just feel slightly less consistent with Night Call’s explosive vibe.

Where the album reaches its pinnacle is when the production becomes eductively darker and can really situate listeners into an intense atmosphere of a club approaching closing hours. With dark, manipulated piano chords, ghostly backing vocals and a pounding rhythm, “Crave” is a simply delicious and addictive track. This may be a hot take, but its spacey palette, theatrical vocals and urgency are reminiscent of Muse if they ever decided to create a pop album, which is much to Olly’s credit – especially when his falsetto vocals come into play during the bridge (“How could you ever leave / When you know I’d die for you?”).

The finale track on the deluxe edition, “Reflection”, is perhaps the best track on the project, incorporating ominous background harmonies, hand-claps, guitar and sensuous beats alongside Olly’s vocals, which are filtered to a sharper edge. It finds him walking home from a guy’s house and contemplating the inevitable regret that arises in the aftermath of a hookup – especially as he wants something more substantial. “We could fall in love / But we both know that’s not happening” he sings, defeated. As an ending it makes sense, it feels like we have left the club with an attractive stranger but it is also a curiously melancholy track after such prior celebration. It indicates a more emotional core and feeling behind the scenes than the album was previously willing to reveal. However, it remains an outlier that doesn’t unravel the club atmosphere it has so clearly been building.

Cosmic, sensual and fun, Night Call is simultaneously a love letter to the queer community and the sheer catharsis that pop music provides. The album is at its prime when it refuses to hold back and pummels the listener with propulsive and sugary beats. While it’s not breaking any new ground or causing any philosophical contemplation, it’s highly doubtful that the album is trying to be more than what it exactly is: a collection of songs about dancing your way out of the complications and snares that so often accompany love.

Of course, the bittersweet is present on this album and sometimes the inconsistencies of the production cause some divots in quality, however Olly’s first solo outing is ultimately joyous. Nothing feels as good as not overthinking and even when this album approaches the territory of heartbreak, it merely tiptoes on the border before gliding back to the dancefloor completely unfettered. Night Call is a glowing set of earworms with the odd flicker every now and then that encourages you to embrace all the heartbreak and happiness that life inevitably throws at you.