Declan Mckenna / Zeros review – ‘Chaotic Charisma In The Indie Cosmos’
The UK’s Interstellar Indie Saviour Drops Coming-of-Age for Science-Fiction – and Crisps
Establishing a new faith in the UK indie scene back in 2017 with his debut album ‘What Do You Think About the Car?’, Declan Mckenna’s sonic development in the three years since couldn’t be embodied any better than the 21 year old asking us “What do you think about the rocket I built?” on the opening song of his second album ‘Zeros’. With a sound that feels more science-fiction than coming-of-age, the singer’s follow up album is drenched in synths and shimmers that progress the boyish charm of what initially drew his fan-base in.
The majority of ‘Zeros’ is lyrically charming, as McKenna (somehow) confidently switches to singing about spaceships to Quavers in a matter of lines on the intro track, ‘You Better Believe!!!’. There aren’t many artists who could pull this off – let alone own it as their brand as well as McKenna does. Tracks 2-5 are made up of four previously released singles, including McKenna’s best song to date ‘The Key to Life on Earth’; an indie-rock anthem of the fetishisation of the working class in the UK, as Declan protests how the ‘out of touch scrounging rich kids / are living here for free on my home turf.’ With a chorus that only McKenna’s vocal tone could deliver, and an outro made up with backing vocals by a handful of school children asking the said rich-kids to “come work in Sainsbury’s until you’ve had enough,” the lead single really proves to be the highlight of not only the album, but McKenna’s whole discography.
The production on the Elton-John-meets-Bowie explosion ‘Be an Astronaut’ is enough to blow anyone away, with impressive keys that meld with guitar riffs and sounds that can only be attributed to the rocket built in the previous song, it’s certainly McKenna’s musical masterpiece. Lyrically, ‘Be an Astronaut’ contributes to the concept of zeros with ease – but that’s where it ends, as there’s not much to be taken from the chorus or verses. A musical spectacle that’s easily rooted in the highlights of 2020 so far, though, Track 2 is impressive to say the least.
In the premiere of ‘Daniel, You’re Still a Child’, McKenna told Annie Mac that the song “kind of tells the story of the album, in a way,” which goes further than the lyrical reference. Sonically the song begins as another impressive instrumental and lyrical fusion, but unfortunately descends into a messy mix of various basslines and synths overlapping; sounding as though McKenna’s spaceship has blown up, the album follows a similar auditory narrative as the remaining five songs unfortunately descend into something much less impressive. Tracks such as ‘Rapture’ and ‘Twice Your Size’ are shamelessly tailored to the American audience, as the latter sounds brazenly alike to a cut from MGMT’s more recent album ‘Little Dark Age’, and the former revolves on a refrain that extends beyond catchiness into irritation; ‘Jet – Black – Jet – Black – Jet – Black. . .’ Both seemingly out of place for both ‘Zeros’ and McKenna’s discography, the tracks prove to be less progressive and more uncomfortable.
The more sombre ‘Emily,’ a mean-spirited acoustic guitar based track, so nearly escapes the trap that ruins the second half of the album – beginning as a call back to McKenna’s first album, the guitar becomes smothered in synths and drums that sadly overload the charm of the song writing. As it ends, the final verse is stripped back to how the song began, and we’re reminded of why we can’t help but fall for McKenna’s charisma. It’s equally as out of place in the ten-track album as the tracks to follow, but in a way that satisfies the fans of the singer’s more acoustic balladry heard on his debut. As catchy and as likable as it is, ‘Emily’ is dangerously similar to Harry Styles’ latest album cut ‘Cherry’. From the chord progressions and guitar style to the lyrics (‘You remember to forget’) and their delivery, the tune emulates a sound coined by Bob Dylan, replicated by Styles and then adopted by Mckenna. Third time’s a charm?
Fortunately, the messier second half of the album is redeemed by an impressive, admirable round up of both the story and sound of ‘Zeros’ in the closing track, ‘Eventually, Darling’. Another masterpiece of song writing, mixing and performance, the track travels through a galaxy of different instruments, melodies and tones – vocally and musically remarkable, no chord is left unpaired by a charming lyric. McKenna’s re-pitched chorus whispers that he’s “sick of trying to be her and trying to be him / exactly what is getting worse each time and time again” as he delves into a spiral of overthinking, questioning himself as to why he’s, well, questioning himself. Easily the best of the non-singles on Zeros, the long awaited follow up to Mckenna’s debut album ends on an astronomical high.