On his debut album, 2017’s ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’, 21-year-old Declan McKenna was branded as the ‘voice of his generation’ by critics. Here was a record that tackled big subjects – politics, religious hypocrisy, how the media handled the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Acorn – but its creator always felt uncomfortable with that hefty tag.
“I wouldn’t really describe myself directly as a political musician,” he told us last year. “I think I have an opinion on a lot of things, and I guess I’m someone who wants to share that and wants to make a point about certain things I think are right and wrong.” Indeed, in this week’s NME cover story, he explains: “All I was doing was trying to say something important in every aspect of that body of work, but there has since been this expectation for me to blur the lines between myself as an artist and as an activist.”
On ‘Zeros’, his second album, he hasn’t so much ditched the songwriting approach that made him the media’s latest anointed one as he’s packaged it differently. He’s still dealing with weighty topics – religion, the environment, outsiderdom and beauty all make an appearance here – but this time his lyrics are more opaque, more complicated. There are fewer neat, rallying calls this time around.
Fittingly for an album released in the burning hellscape that is 2020, ‘Zeros’ tells tales of impending doom but, thankfully, Earth has been spared this time – it’s all set in some dystopian other world that comes across like an episode of Black Mirror set in a parallel universe in outer space. Wherever these stories are set, though, it’s a place that’s on the brink.
On the gleaming ‘Sagittarius A*’, McKenna alludes to a Biblical flood, sneering at a jet-setting trust fund kid: “So Noah, you best start building / You better have 10,000 children.” On the sparky pomp of opener ‘You Better Believe!!!’ (excessive exclamation mark use: McKenna’s own), an asteroid is hurtling down to wipe everything out, leaving just enough time to take some last consolation in the empty embrace of capitalism. “I’m off out to buy a bag of Quavers and Nike trainers,” he sighs. “Comfort you can feel.”
‘Twice Your Size’, with which he marries country twangs with intergalactic sheen, is gloomier still, painting pictures of the sun melting “what it can touch”. He warns that does so “regardless of what you believe in” because “Earth will change / So we must grab our pets and head off out of range”. On ‘Rapture’, meanwhile, he mixes talk of one of Britain’s biggest villains with what sounds like the Londoner’s take on Daft Punk’s robot-rock. It opens with a cyborg voice droning beneath disco-flecked guitars before a sparse verse name-checks “Mrs Thatcher” whose “cruel heart navigates the world we live in”.
When he started out making the follow-up to ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ at the end of 2017, McKenna intended to make a super ‘70s space opera. He might not have stuck to that plan, but you can hear traces of it all over the record, which is stylised in sci-fi but holds off on getting too theatrical and flamboyant. Recorded with producer Jay Joyce in Nashville, it’s a sleek, shiny record that sounds like it was made floating high above the Earth’s atmosphere.
If there’s one downfall on ‘Zeros’, though, it’s how obviously it wears its inspirations on its sleeve. ‘The Key To Life On Earth’ boasts shrill, twinkling synth motifs that immediately recall Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Blur are easily recognisable in the likes of the clipped anthemics of ‘Beautiful Faces’, while there’s more than a trace of Queen in the piano-led ‘Be An Astronaut’. At times, given that he’s so transparent with his influences, it feels like an homage to those who’ve gone before rather the work of someone dubbed a generational leader.
That’s not to say McKenna isn’t original or trying to push his own boundaries. This record is full of ideas and never fully settles on one genre for long; it hops from finger-picked and folky (‘Emily’) to stomping space-rock (‘Daniel, You’re Still A Child’). Sometimes it does so in one song – as when ‘Eventually, Darling’ opens it sounds like it about to channel the most fringe-worthy emo, but instead turn into a shimmering piece of experimental pop.
The 21-year-old might be trying to shake off any unwieldy labels from critics this time around, but he’s doing so in electric, entertaining and thought-provoking form. Climb aboard McKenna’s space shuttle, and let him transport you to a place where dancing and getting deep are equally encouraged.
Release date: September 4
Record label: Columbia