2020 – Rock
Mixing David Bowie, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, English singer Declan McKenna’s second album carries political messages about climate change and beauty standards that are played with all the energy of teen rock.
When Declan McKenna released his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, he was called by the critics “the voice of his generation.” The album, released in 2017, when McKenna was 18, was one of the best debuts of that year. Mixing external stories — political struggles in “Isombard” and transgender suicide in “Paracetamol” — with files and personal memories — in “Humongous,” he retrieves an old recording in which he reacts to the purchase of a new car for his family (“I think it’s really good, and I’m going to sing my new album now.”) — in a dynamic, homogeneous but sometimes messy way, Declan caught the attention of the media that quickly started calling him “political musician,” even with him denying this view. Now, at the age of 21, McKenna returns with his second album, Zeros, which shows, in a more organized way, a story that is lost in nostalgic outer space.
Following a style that is becoming a trend in recent times — songs that are played in a universe in which the past and the future collide in a visually and sonically pleasant, captivating and entertaining energy — Zeros takes us to the past where rockets, arcades and neon lights were impressive. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s compositions, David Bowie themes and sonority reminiscent of The Beatles’ ambition, McKenna’s second album emerges as an incredible, well-ordered, complete and gap-free project. Working his fears, desires and loves on a fictional character in the middle of a beautiful and chaotic world, Zeros appears with poetic lyrics composed of several layers that seem complicated, but quickly become clear, and a bright, nostalgia, contemporary and ambitious sound that mixes different elements from different genres in an very intelligent and dynamic way. Zeros will probably be one of those albums that will become a timeless reference.
Much of Zeros is coordinated around Daniel’s Story, a character that is not well defined and outlined, that may be a fearful child in the middle of a cruel world, a rebellious young man who smokes and roams the London streets, or even a man who finds himself hopeless. However, as much as this character is still blurred, you can get to know him, understand him and empathize with him. In the second track of the album, “Be an Astronaut,” we are taken to a kind of space race. McKenna sings to Daniel, “Well, you were born to be an astronaut/And you’ll do that or die trying.” However, as sharp as Declan’s lyric is, the main point of the track is its sonority, which involves layers of well-ordered vocals, mind-blowing Classical Guitars and space synthesizers, which creates an incredible progression and a memorable and captivating rhythm. This is probably the point of the album where we can see what it would be like if we mixed David Bowie with The Beatles, both in essence.
However, Daniel’s story is not limited to narratives of a dreamy child with a promising future who are bullied by other boys (as we saw between the lines of “Be an Astronaut”). In “The Key to Life on Earth,” Declan paints scenes of a “half-rebellious” young man who recounts his life while roaming London. He sings, “We’ve been held back for after-school meetings/They’ve got it in for me/For all it’s worth/The key to life on Earth,” and continues later, “You kids and your jokes/Asking where we got our jeans/And where the hell we found our coats.” Meanwhile, McKenna features broad, versatile vocals while guitars and synthesizers mix nicely in the background. “Daniel, You’re Still a Child,” in turn, is the key to understanding the entire album. Here, we can see the lack of clarity in the character of Declan since in the chorus, when he sings, “Daniel, you’re still a child,” it is difficult to understand if he is talking about an immature adult or really a child. However, this is not a problem since we are still able to connect with the well thought out lines of the track, while the mesmerizing sound of the background seems to assume a brand-new identity.
However, Zeros also manages to be versatile and sometimes put Daniel aside to talk about other subjects. The opener, “You Better Believe !!!,” is another moment where the Bowie and Beatles meeting takes place in a concrete way, in which McKenna breaks the pattern and sings about the fact that someone is unique does not make it better than other people (“Don’t mean you’re the only one/To save us all”). In addition, while “Beautiful Faces,” with one of the most captivating choruses on the album, uses several sound facets that move nicely to talk about the beauty standards in the media and social networks, “Rapture” is the most versatile track featuring numerous sound styles and tendencies that, in the end, seem to be part of one thing. While McKenna draws a line between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the current situation, he throws remixed voices, rock and pop chords and rhythmic verses that sound tacky but that fit very well here. With drowned voices, McKenna made one of the most ambitious tracks of the year.
However, there are some tracks that tried to follow these promises but ended up being poorly designed and poorly executed. “Emily” and “Twice Your Size,” despite the positives — at first, the first one could be part of The Beatles discography and the second resembles “Movies” by Weyes Blood — end up becoming disappointing because their choruses seem disconnected from the rest. Fortunately, the ending is golden with “Sagittarius A*” addressing environmental and political problems in a very playful fable that comes to life through simpler and more restrained instruments that end up talking well with the theme. The last track, “Eventually, Darling,” despite having a somewhat confusing lyrics, has a farewell content that receives a greater charm with synthetic voices from funny aliens. He sings in the final seconds, “Would you do it again?”. We don’t know, but we hope McKenna does something as great again