Before British electropop group Years and Years became a hit in the US and UK, they worked the indie electro circuit, prepping for their first album Communion that was to be released in July 2015, and using lead vocalist Olly Alexander’s friend as a star for their video for “Take Shelter.” (The friend was Emily Browning, with whom Alexander had starred in Stuart Murdoch’s musical/concept album come to life God Help the Girl.) One of their first singles would be “Desire,” released in November 2014, featuring a sticky sexiness that has come to define the trio’s sonic aesthetic. And while the kind of neo-noirish “Desire” video (also released in November 2014) is all well and good, with appreciative nods to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., that hasn’t stopped Alexander and co. from making a fascinating new statement about the song’s primary subject.
Olly Alexander came out publicly as gay in March 2015, ahead of the album’s release. Pitchfork’s Tim Finney was quick to note the very unapologetic queerness of the album’s tracks, as “songs carefully map the contours of gay sensuality, awareness, and annihilating self-abandon.” Queer identity is infused into each track both implicitly and explicitly, and since Alexander came out publicly, not only has his LGBTQ activism grown in its volume, but also in the way that it manifests in his art.
Last weekm, Years and Years re-released “Desire” in a new version with guest vocals by Tove Lo, and with a specific idea in mind. Cognizant of the heteronormative nature of pop music videos, Olly Alexander and his queer family have taken it upon themselves to reclaim desire through the pop lens, with a new video whose vehement sensuality collides with the song’s aesthetic minimalism. Olly Alexander wrote in a Facebook post, “Pop music has a pretty good track record of embracing queer culture, it’s been a safe place for some of our most visible queer icons, we have more out and open non-straight stars than ever before. The word queer first started being used in the late 1980’s by members of the community who wanted to reclaim something negative and turn it into a positive. It’s still a painful word for some and lots of people don’t identify with it but for me it’s a helpful and empowering term that unifies an ever growing community.”
Much of Communion’s focus is this ambivalence about confidence in one’s identity, where navigating one’s identity is an expressive journey. Alexander’s lyrics suggest there is a duality about this navigation, at once confident in this desire and yet cognizant of the possibility of becoming a pariah. In “Memo,” he croons, “Let me take your heart/Love you in the dark/No one has to see.” That’s articulated in this new video, directed by Fred Rowson, as literal, with Alexander, dressed in pastels, suffocated by daylight and an expansiveness that’s unfulfilling, leaving him to wander dark hallways. He finds, at the end of this hallway, a room with queer people, cast in in neon lights. Men, women, genderqueer people, other non-binary people. He rushes up to someone and kisses them, and then moves to the next person. The song returns to its chorus and the room erupts into orgiastic bliss. This video is certain about how it merges and exchanges identity and experience with regard to desire, and intoxicating in its execution. Here, power, lust, and love are passed on from hand to hand, almost symbiotically.
“I must be tough/I must behave, I must keep fighting,” Alexander says, his eyes staring directly into the camera. It’s a performed monologue, told to himself and, per Alexander’s point in his post, to a heteronormative framework that denies this sort of exploration of desire for queer individuals.
The swirling camera movements, and the very straightforward nature of the video (it begins with an abstraction of two people kissing passionately, one person’s fingers gliding across the other’s skin), recall Terrence Malick if he’d directed John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, a reconciliation of the spirituality of sexuality. Its artful nature makes it all the sexier.
It’s worth observing that in Years and Years’ previous videos, such as “King,” all hands are on Alexander, literally. Hands seem to be as important a focal point of meaning for Years and Years as for Robert Bresson, in whose they are the arbiter of exchanges of power dynamics, repression, liberation, domination, submission, versatility, and sensuality.
But the unbridled sex in “Desire” both is and isn’t for its own sake. In this video is present something rarely consciously put onscreen: the queer gaze. “Is it desire? Or is it love that I’m feeling for you?” the song asks. The video answers that the two do not exist in a binary, but on a spectrum. The bodies, rather than merely objectified in their presentation, find their own liberation in being desired and granted a form of autonomy in being both object and subject. Not only are hands arbiters of subject and object, but act as an exchange between the two. The complexity of discerning those two is as stimulating as discerning between, as the track suggests, desire and love.