Years & Years: Night Call (Polydor)
Verdict: Dials the right numbers
Janis Ian: The Light At The End Of The Line (Rude Girl)
Verdict: Elegant swansong
John Mellencamp: Strictly A One-Eyed Jack (EMI )
Verdict: Blue-collar rock… with help from The Boss
Once an electronic trio, Years & Years is now the vehicle for a solo Olly Alexander.
An enthusiastic multi-tasker who is juggling an acting career, television presenting roles and pop, the Gloucestershire-raised singer is becoming a force to be reckoned with on all fronts.
In the past year he’s sung with Elton John at the BRITs, appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and been praised for his performance in Channel 4 drama series It’s A Sin, about the Aids epidemic in 1980s London.
At Christmas, he starred in a festive episode of Bake Off before hosting the New Year celebrations on BBC One. If you think such a busy schedule might have a detrimental effect on his music, think again.
An enthusiastic multi-tasker who is juggling an acting career, television presenting roles and pop, the Gloucestershire-raised singer is becoming a force to be reckoned with on all fronts
Night Call is the third Years & Years album (his first without former bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen) but it refines his approach by avoiding anything too esoteric in favour of a heady rush to the dance floor.
It’s a confident step for the singer, 31, whose personality seeps into the songs. Made with British producer Mark Ralph, Night Call isn’t groundbreaking and periodically lapses into pastiche.
There’s an obvious debt to 1970s styles and the electronic pop and disco that fuelled Kylie’s Light Years and Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor in the early 2000s.
But Alexander leaves his own stamp. Having tried, and failed, to write songs while on tour, he found inspiration after filming It’s A Sin. After the original band split in 2020 (though Goldsworthy will still play live), he began afresh.
Reluctant to write about lockdown, he opted instead to explore the ‘fantastical space’ of feel-good pop.
Track of the week
Act of Love by Simple Minds
Singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill turn back the clock on a single that revamps an unrecorded live favourite from Simple Minds’ early days. Released to mark the 44th anniversary of the band’s first gig in 1978, Act Of Love bridges past and present with showy synths and grandiose guitars
The upshot is a coming-of-age odyssey that touches on the search for love, but is primarily about how Alexander, also a strong voice on gay and mental health issues, is learning how to enjoy himself.
The title track may be a song about nocturnal desires, but it’s also a bullish metaphor for his return to music. The songs, mostly co-written with his producer, contain sly twists amid the pulsating electronics.
Consequences leans too heavily on auto-tuned vocals, but Starstruck’s combination of club-ready beats and bubblegum hooks is instantly hummable. ‘Baby let’s dance, we can dream until the sunrise,’ sings Olly on the latter, but there’s room for reflection, too. On Crave, he wonders if a toxic relationship is worth the torment, while electronic ballad Intimacy outlines his need for something deeper. ‘I’m not one for casual intimacy,’ he declares. Slow songs are thin on the ground, though some intriguing twists emerge late on.
The down-tempo Strange And Unusual is a legacy of his mum Vicki’s love for trip-hop act Morcheeba, while Make It Out Alive is a ballad written with singer Ilsey Juber. On screen or stage, Olly is set to be around for years and years.
n SHE’S best known for her Grammy-winning single At Seventeen — the ultimate ode to high school growing pains — but New Jersey singer Janis Ian, now 70, has been quietly honing her songwriting craft for the past five decades. The Light At The End Of The Line is her first new album in 15 years and, she says, her last. ‘I’ve created a body of work I’m proud of,’ she explains. ‘I’m not calling this retiring — it’s rewiring.’ Dedicated to ‘the fierce women who inspire me’, and made with a classy band, it’s a graceful swansong, steeped in American folk and the acoustic songwriter styles of the 1970s. Poetic and poignant, these are serious, well lived-in songs.
Opening track I’m Still Standing is a portrait of growing older and wiser. But there’s bite to her writing, too. Resist is a punchy honky-tonk rocker with a feminist message. Better Times Will Come, with Eagles touring musician Vince Gill on guitar, is an idealistic protest song.
Ian’s roots are in folk, but many of her songs have an urban emphasis. Summer In New York is a jazzy, piano-led homage to Fifth Avenue, Central Park and a city where ‘sin and sidewalk meet’.
Nina is an eloquent tribute to Nina Simone. ‘When you hit the mark, you stopped my heart,’ she sings. Much the same applies here.
When John Mellencamp broke through in the 1980s with blue-collar rock anthems such as Jack & Diane, he was dubbed ‘the poor man’s Springsteen’.
His new record is raw and gritty, his nicotine-roughened voice now close to the gruffness of Tom Waits or Willie Nelson
That comparison did him a disservice, but he turns the tables on new album Strictly A One-Eyed Jack . . . by getting The Boss to play the supporting role.
Mellencamp, 70, has always been a more nuanced artist than his everyday songs from the American heartland might suggest. He’s written a musical with Stephen King and is turning Jack & Diane into another stage production.
His new record is raw and gritty, his nicotine-roughened voice now close to the gruffness of Tom Waits or Willie Nelson.
Lockdown life hasn’t done much for his good cheer, though. His hard-bitten optimism gives way to cynicism on I Always Lie To Strangers — ‘This world is run by men much more crooked than me’ — and the bruised I Am A Man That Worries.
His outlook eventually improves on the funky Sweet Honey Brown.
The arrival of The Boss brings another lift. The latter’s harmonies add brightness to the paranoid Did You Say Such A Thing. Wasted Days, about seizing the moment, is a powerful duet. Springsteen adds further help with some scintillating guitar on A Life Full Of Rain.
Maybe Bruce is now the poor man’s Mellencamp.
All albums are out today. Years & Years start a UK tour at the Brighton Centre on May 19 (axs.com).