Declan McKenna’s highly anticipated Zeros strikes the right chord for fans of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, but how does it compare to his powerful debut album?
At just 21-years-old, Declan McKenna’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. First turning eyes as the winner of the 2015 Glastonbury Festival Emerging Talent Competition, the millennial rocker has spent the past half-decade solidifying himself as a mainstay of the British indie scene. His 2017 debut album What Do You Think About the Car? was met by critical and commercial adoration. Filled with peppy alt-pop tracks that tackled crucial social issues – from the 2014 Brazil World Cup to reflections on the right-wing English press – the album was a fantastic climax to the first chapter of his career.
Following several corona-centric delays, Declan’s second full-length project has finally landed, with a live-streamed performance as a celebratory accompaniment.
The handful of singles that preceded Zeros marked a significant sonic evolution from McKenna’s previous work. Tracks like The Key to Life on Earth and the lead cut Beautiful Faces teased an album that, lyrically and auditorily, was moving in a far more interstellar, glam-rock inspired direction. While Declan has never been shy about his 70s influences, much of the instrumentation on these releases would not be out of place on a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie project.
The raucous opener You Better Believe!!! is an effective tone-setter for the album. The first few seconds of roaring drums and rising synths create a real rocket-launch atmosphere, and although it may be a little over-long it acts as an effective bridge between Declan’s past and present sounds. The album transitions smoothly into Be an Astronaut, a track that might be the best McKenna has written thus far. The wailing glam guitars, hammered keyboard leads, and background synths mesh to create a gorgeous cacophony of 70s sound that culminates in a climatic breakdown worthy of the cheesiest rock opera known to man. Declan’s vocal performance on the track is nothing short of magnificent – a wonderful mix of emotional fist-pumping power and the cracked, almost bruised singing he’s come to be known for. The song is fantastic and builds tremendous excitement for the rest of the album.
The Key to Life on Earth opens with a shrill, space-age lounge keyboard riff heavily reminiscent of sounds found on Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino. Declan’s voice and lyrics are doing most of the work on this track, with the interstellar instrumentation taking a disappointing backseat after their impressive showing earlier. Thankfully the lyrics are some of his best. Filled with reflections on the doomed youth and class divides of modern Britain, Declan’s performance reminds us why success has found him so early. The hook is undeniably sticky, as is the one found on Beautiful Faces; the first of the singles released prior to the album. Here, the merging of Declan’s early indie style and a newer turn towards an electropop sound seem at odds with one another. The ringing background synths feel almost token when compared to the more seamless fusion on the opening tracks, and the song as a whole suffers for it. This is a shame, as McKenna’s strong lyrical chops are on full display here, as is his knack for writing catchy earworm choruses.
The final single, Daniel, You’re Still a Child, is the weakest up to this point on the album. While the synth-wave instrumentals have an undeniably great groove, the song builds to quite an anti-climax compared with what we know Declan is capable of. It feels as though this track should be a definitive cornerstone of the album, but unfortunately it falls a little flat.
Regrettably, the album falls into a rather uninspired rut at this midpoint. The opening singles stand as the project’s highpoints, leading to a comparatively lacklustre back half that never quite recaptures the original magic. Emily is a mostly muted guitar love ballad with some of Declan’s weakest lyrics to date. Sagittarius A* is painfully generic, sounding like the singer musically treading water rather than the envelope-pushing we were hoping for. There are snapshots of innovation here and there, such as the opening refrain on Rapture or the back half of Twice Your Size, but more often than not McKenna lapses back into his more traditional song writing tropes. The results aren’t exactly poor songs but definitely feel like missed opportunities for experimentation and evolution.
Despite a weaker second half, Zeros ends on a melancholic high note on Eventually, Darling. The song isn’t nearly as bombastic as the opening cuts, but the simpler guitar lead instrumentation and gorgeously raw singing give the song some quiet power, ending the album with a misty air of nostalgia. While the vocal effects on the chorus fall a little flat, it is encouraging to see Declan trying something new and evolving his sound.
Mention must also be made of the accompanying live show McKenna and co. performed the night Zeros dropped. Starting with a seamless playthrough of the full album before returning for a selection of assorted hits, the gig is demonstrative of the young artist’s incredible stage presence, even in an empty arena.
On a technical level, the show was a masterclass. Everything went on slick and was clearly rehearsed to a tee, despite maintaining the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic aimed for. Certain tracks transition onto the stage better than others. While Be an Astronaut lacks the punch that makes the studio version so great, You Better Believe!!! is the kind of show-starter that makes you pine for the times of in-person gigging. Twice Your Size is one cut that really shines in the live setting, with the chaotic climax of instruments and Declan’s manic vocals merging into an atmosphere of incredible intensity. While starting a little shaky, the live debut of Eventually, Darling is a wonderfully tear-jerking closer for the main set.
The band quickly transitions into British Bombs – a fantastic song that’s absence on Zeros continues to be a mystery. A trio of hits from What Do You Think About the Car? round out the gig, Declan’s voice rich with a nostalgia shared by his listeners. For a certain set of people, tracks like Brazil, Make Me Your Queen, and Listen to Your Friends were, and still are, playlist mainstays with a lot of emotional significance. Thankfully, their performances tonight are as powerful as they were five years ago, ending the show with a sentimental beauty only McKenna can elicit.
Where the songwriter goes from here is unclear. In short, while Zeros loses steam in the second half, the album is bookended by moments of genuine greatness. Although nothing on the tracklist is an immediate turn-off, too many times it feels like McKenna was playing it safe and wound up sounding uninspired. However, when McKenna does experiment with his sound it pays off massively, and ultimately, I come away from Zeros with a reaffirmed excitement for his next musical project.
Rating: 6/10 Top Track: Be An Astronaut