Declan McKenna — Zeros (9/4/20)

The UK teen prodigy Declan McKenna gained a good amount of attention in 2015/16 with his debut single “Brazil.” He was 16-years-old at the time and it was pretty clear with his breakout hit that we were looking at a rockstar in the making.

His debut album arrived in the summer of 2017; the song “Isombard” has remained a staple in my library while the rest I’ve let fade way.

Zeros is Declan’s sophomore album and his first time recording with his full band. They recorded in Nashville last August, and after pushing the album’s release date back a few times, we finally have it.

The album has been hailed as a contemporary take on the rock music style of the ’60s and ’70s. And that’s fine and all, but I’m just so tired of comparing every theatrical rock album to the rock legends of the past.

I get it, modern artists are constantly influenced by the “golden age” of rock music and we can’t help but make the comparisons. For myself though, I’ve never cared much for comparing modern music to music from the 20th century because it just ends up feeling a bit redundant. I do tend to make comparisons to ’90s music because that’s the decade of my childhood, but I’ve never been too interested in music from before that time (don’t get me wrong, I love Fleetwood Mac).

It seems like anyone who makes music like this will forever be compared to David Bowie, Elton John, The Beatles, etc… and I don’t like that. I’m not listening to this album thinking about how it compares to those icons; I’m thinking about how it compares to the music of today.

That being said, this album rocks.

Opener “You Better Believe!!!” has maybe the most fired up passage I’ve heard from Declan in the outrageous bridge just after the 3-minute mark. The line, “What do you think about the blood that I bleed?” cuts deep.

And I am swooning over the following “Be an Astronaut.” It’s an emotional slow-building piano-rocker that rips into my heart with its bursts of energy. Declan introduces Daniel, the central character of the album. The main refrain of, “Well, you were born to be an astronaut/And you’ll do that or die trying,” hits with such a wonderful feeling. At the end of the song, it becomes, “But you were born an astronaut/To do it or die trying,” making for a heart-warming message.

“The Key to Life on Earth” is the best. No doubt about it, the song is one of the greatest musical offerings of 2020. Compared to some of the more out-of-this-world settings presented on this album the song feels so grounded in everyday life. Declan shows disdain for certain types of people in his home of London.

It’s been a favourite of mine since its release as the second single back in April. There’s something about a fast, steady drumbeat that just works for me because I find myself crediting it as a factor in many of my favourite songs. The beat supports the song throughout as flashy keys and guitar dance about, and the forceful melody of the chorus is insanely infectious.

“Beautiful Faces” was put out as the lead single back in January and is another one that keeps things relatively down-to-earth. It’s a playful guitar-pop track that speaks of the “beautiful faces” that constantly flood our feeds online with today’s social media. They create a real smash to the hook by playing through it once without drums and then again with the drums; a standard formula that adds some real power to a hook that otherwise could be seen as a little tiresome.

The main chunk of my liking for this album goes into those first four songs.

“Daniel, You’re Still a Child” is an impressive and grandiose glam-rock dazzler, showing more encouragement towards the album’s lead character. It’s just too much fancy “rock” for a guy like myself who is stubbornly looking for an emotional melody, and I don’t find myself feeling anything from it.

“Emily” is the one song on here that really strips things back for a soft and easy melody. Declan’s layered vocals sound great and it’s a very sticky refrain but there’s nothing much else to keep me interested.

I get some enjoyment out of “Twice Your Size,” mostly in part to another quick and steady beat. The peppy chorus is well done but isn’t anything particularly exciting though. You get a pretty chaotic final 30 seconds as Declan screams over crashing drums, reminding me a bit of the UK band Foals’ heavier side.

“Rapture” is one of the more memorable songs due to its catchy high-sung hook and wonky production elements. There’s no denying the catchiness; the main refrain of, “Rapture in my head/I keep looking up like I’m already dead,” is very infectious. And I think it’s pretty cool in the first verse when he changes the pronunciation of “nature” to rhyme with “Mrs. Thatcher” (referring to former UK PM Margaret Thatcher).

The final minute-twenty gives the outro to “Twice Your Size” a run for its money with a cacophony of squealing guitar as Declan’s vocals take on a wavy effect like he’s singing into a fan. He leads into this grating scream that is pretty much just shock value and then the song comes to a close with this Crystal Castles-like jumble of madness.

“Sagittarius A*” (the black hole at the center of the Milky Way) doesn’t rely on any grand elements to get its message across. It keeps things slightly subdued with a more straightforward alternative rock approach that I appreciate. The subjects of climate change and global warming seem to pop up throughout the album and it’s pretty evident on this one that he’s poking at people who undervalue the seriousness of the matter.

The closing song “Eventually, Darling” shows a side I haven’t heard of Declan with his vocals warped to this chiptune style during the chorus for a very cute and catchy passage. It makes for a stark contrast to the full rock sound that surrounds it.

He’s stated that the line “Everyone leaves eventually, darling, don’t be afraid,” is his favourite lyric from the album. The song takes recognition of that and tries to provide a bit of a positive spin on the unsettling fact that nothing lasts forever.

So, ultimately, a very strong sophomore showing from Declan, who, at the time of recording, was still only 20-years-old. It is a bit top-heavy for me, with my favourite moments landing in the first three songs, but the rest of the album is far from a write-off.

Declan is now approaching his 22nd birthday and something tells me the best is yet to come from this young English artist.

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