by Ian Kerstetter
Walking into the hum and chic club lighting of the Park West theater, I remembered buying the tickets that were now in my hand with a sense of fruition. It had been, in a small way, an act of faith. When I saw the tour dates, I had been working all year towards moving to Chicago to start graduate school. Not sure where I would be when Years & Years would perform in Chicago on September 22nd, I decided to buy two tickets- one for me, as a way of trusting in my own plans, and another one, hoping and believing that I would have a friend to go with me.
Now, descending the stairs to the open dance floor with my roommate, I knew that it had been a risk worth taking. I had taken a small but significant step in what felt like the right direction. Surrounded by the anticipation of the crowd, I felt relief. The rush and emotions of the past few months had led to this moment, and many other moments to come. I was here, about to see the band that had gotten me through the last finals of my undergraduate career and kept me company on sleepless nights looking through apartment ads and finishing scholarship papers.
As the lights changed to red and the silhouette of frontman Olly Alexander materialized on stage, I felt an electric current run through the audience and remembered feeling a similar electricity the first time I heard Years & Years. They were sampled in “Magic Tape 40,” a mixtape I stumbled upon last spring by The Magician, a talented Belgian producer and DJ with an ear for infectious dance music across genres and decades that is catchy and light hearted without being vapid or desperate to get your attention, a description that could also be used to explain the appeal of Years & Years.
After deciding I needed to know what song had gotten stuck in my head for days after listening to the mixtape, I discovered “Real,” the group’s third single and arguably the song that lit the wildfire of attention that the band began receiving in 2014.
Since the success of “Real,” the UK band has seen more success with every release. BBC named them the Sound of 2015 last December, and the band was awarded Artist to Watch at the 2015 mtvU Woodie Awards back in March. Since then, they have been nominated for seven more awards.
Joining an ever-growing list of young artists making music for their own generation, Years & Years satisfies my cravings for danceable, polished pop; moody R&B; and bright indie electronica. They’d be just at home in a playlist with Drake as they would be with Purity Ring.
When I saw you on that stage
I shiver with the look you gave
Don't you hear that rhythm
Can you show me how we can escape...
But as Alexander emerged from the fog on stage to sing the opening lines of “Shelter,” I thought that perhaps my favorite thing about Years & Years are their lyrics. Their polished but still complex sound is enough to make me dance, but the poetry of their lyrics truly move me. Honest and emphatically emotional, the words the whole room was now singing along to strike the perfect balance between personal and universal to transmit truth the way that poetry does.
It's shaking the sky and I'm following lightning
I'll recover if you keep me alive...
This poetry, written by Olly Alexander who is open about his sexuality, also inspires me as a queer person. When Alexander confirmed that he identifies as gay earlier this year, I and queer boys across the world celebrated the confirmation of something we already felt was true. Alexander’s lyrics and music videos seem to speak from a gay perspective without being explicit about pronouns, and it is powerful and refreshing to celebrate music by a queer person without seeing that queerness tokenized or used as entertainment.
Alexander told The Downtowner when asked about how his identity affects his music, “I’m definitely writing from that perspective. There’s a choice when you write a song with how you talk about someone else. I watched Joni Mitchell do this interview where she said songwriting became easier when she started writing about ‘you and me.’”
Whenever I see a musician perform live, it’s impossible to not notice how they sound live. Sometimes, you can tell when an artist’s recorded work has been heavily altered, for better or worse– but this was not the case with Years & Years. When the band began the opening verses of “Take Shelter,” a song with a sultry, jazzy vibe that made it a perfect opener, I immediately recognized that the album recordings I had been listening to on repeat for the last several months were largely unaltered, a testament to the band’s talent and consistent sound. What their live performance offered that is different from their recordings was their passion and enthusiasm that is invisible on an album. Seeing Alexander dance and smile as if not yet used to the waves of adoration coming from the audience especially made me feel closer to the band.
Perhaps because Years & Years only has one full studio album out for us to listen to, the crowd (myself included) seemed to know most of the words to their songs. This made for a feeling of camaraderie that is missing in other big concerts I’ve been to, and the energy of the band felt closely connected to the pulsing, dancing crowd.
The show was an energetic, perfectly executed performance that the audience responded to with abandon. While secondary to the music, the lighting was another exciting detail, as the color and light seemed to reach out and connect the audience to the band on stage; a visible metaphor for the sound and emotions being shared by the people on and off stage.
I could tell Alexander was having fun too– the singer would periodically cover his mouth as if in shock at his first international tour, or perhaps excitement at so many people all in one room singing along with him. When opener Tei Shi came out for a duet during one song, he became her biggest hype boy. His humility among such new success was refreshing to see in a world of confident but sometimes cold pop artists, and I felt that I was seeing someone unfettered, unabashed, as if I was at a friend’s house show.
This simple, understated perspective in Alexander’s lyrics, the well-crafted music, set and lighting, seeing the band’s success being held up by media without tokenizing his identity, combined with being at their show surrounded by other joyful, creative queer people simply being, made the Years & Years show at Park West more than just a great show and a fun night. It was a moment of clarity and celebration of who I am and who I am striving to be. It was the conclusion to a long year of working and hoping. It was a night of feeling completely at home in a new city with a new friend. It made me glad I bought those tickets.