Album Review: Declan McKenna - 'Zeros'

Though McKenna proved himself a shrewd and spirited singer-songwriter on the debut 'What Do You Think About The Car?', 'Zeros' is the record that could advance him to the zenith of the indie scene. Delayed a few months by the pandemic, it feels a suitable ode to a year of uncertainty, turbulence and folly; all collared through McKenna's trademark jangly guitar grooves and scopic vocals. The Mic's Releases Editor, Alex Duke offers his scoop.

The second studio album by British singer-songwriter Declan McKenna explores the haunting narrative of the crisis of modernity. A crisis that in 2020, has never felt so prevalent. Both harrowing and satirical, McKenna encapsulates what so many people are feeling in just ten songs. His use of contrast, narrative development and ambiguity is intoxicating, and summarises the tumultuous landscape in which we live with both style and ease.

As an artist, McKenna is seldom shy of political and societal critique. His first album, What Do You Think About The Car?, was loaded with protest and dissent, and his breakthrough song Brazil famously criticised the controversy and corruption surrounding the 2014 Brazilian World Cup. Zeros focuses on more general dystopian themes rather than specific political issues, and the result is the painting of a dark, rousing portrait of the difficulties surrounding contemporary life.

Whilst other artists tend to look in, McKenna’s rejection of introspection adds to the brilliance of Zeros. The songs are beautifully constructed, with every track on the album playing a key part in the wider sonic narrative. Intimate, thoughtful lyrics sit comfortably alongside thrashing guitar riffs and heavy percussion, and create this sense of a joyous, cohesive whole. Be An Astronaut, the fourth and final of Mckenna's pre-release singles, is a record highlight. A grand, early Queen-esque affair that combines the twenty-one-year-old's trademark lyrical wordplay and fantastical idiosyncrasies, with a tumbling, elegiac guitar arrangement. Simply joyous.

Comparisons to the great David Bowie have been thrown around the musical sphere and for good reason: the unconventional structure alongside the haunting, highly emotive lyrics have unmissable echoes of Bowie’s work. McKenna’s energetic persona and charisma can easily be associated with the aesthetics of the icon, along with his attentiveness and grasp of the concerns of modern culture. Like Bowie, the 21-year-old has every chance of becoming a similar cultural icon.

"New wave, psychedelia, country and even electronic dance mingle in glorious tandem, emphasising McKenna's refusal to be placed in an industry-crafted box"

On Zeros, McKenna blends what made him so highly regarded in the first place: astute, socio-cultural commentary and infectious, memorable melodies. Yet something feels inherently different to his first record. Whilst some artists may opt for a similar, successful formulae on their sophomore album, McKenna makes subtle, intricate alterations that allow for the progression of his style. He also makes use of fresh social themes, unconventional instrumentation, and a breadth of different genres without compromising the joyous, sparkling simplicity of what initially earned him indie-rock stardom.

Interlinking and weaving together these contrasting genres is a key component in Zeros' sonic success. New wave, psychedelia, country and even electronic dance, mingle in glorious tandem, emphasising McKenna's refusal to be placed in an industry-crafted box. Brave and brash, the 21-year-old's willingness to challenge those styles that brought him initial success is highly admirable for a musician still so early in his career.

Despite McKenna's prevalent hailing to other artists, both past and present, songs like The Key To Life on Earth can be praised heavily for their unwavering originality. Here, lyrical themes of mundanity and conflict sit alongside, and comfortably, slow, lo-fi-esque guitar work and haunting harmonies. An atypical affair, the track presses against McKenna's traditional boundaries of style and sonic sensitivities with captivating success.

Zeros therefore feels world's away from the thunderous, politically-charged punk single, British Bombs that initially launched McKenna to indie stardom. With every song on Zeros leading and referencing one another in enthralling ways, British Bombs and it's raw, stand-alone dynamism, plainly put, would not have fit. When asked about the record, Declan McKenna humbly claimed it was a “natural progression”, but Zeros was far from a happy coincidence. An astute and purposeful furtherance of his prior works, the record is a joyous testament to one of this generation's most promising young musicians. Simply masterful.