It’s a Friday night in 2020 and, let’s face it, things are looking very dystopian out there. Right on cue, alt-pop star Declan McKenna is back with a listening party-come-gig in honour of his new album, ‘Zeros’, a futurist concept record about climate change, social injustice and our hyper-connected world.
Three songs deep, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a Bowie tribute act. Since his 2017 debut, Declan McKenna has re-designed himself as a modern-day glam-rock icon, moving on stage with childish insouciance, resplendent in Marc Bolan glitter make-up and silver lamé. Sprawling piano-ballad ‘Be An Astronaut’ and cosmic-synth number ‘The Key To Life On Earth’ are unmistakeable love-letters to Ziggy Stardust.
But while McKenna may echo Bowie’s vocal flourishes and tales of suburban strife, he doesn’t always fully assume his leading man status. “These two songs are the best songs ever”, he says with not-quite sarcasm, before launching into ‘Sagittarius A*’. What should have been a thrashing take-down of trust-fund babies comes off as a bit tame, while dance-number ‘Rapture’ never fully takes flight. All is saved, though, by the psychedelic guitar riffs of ‘Twice Your Size’ and kick-ass chorus of ‘Beautiful Faces’ – McKenna’s anthem for doomed youth, which, in usual circumstances, would easily have had the crowd on his side.
The north Londoner’s retro-future mission triumphs when he turns to his older, most overtly political material. On post-punk hit ‘British Bombs’, McKenna takes things up a gear as he tears apart the hypocrisy of Britain’s arms trade. “Great British bombs in the Yemen!”, he protests, falling to his knees and staring straight into the camera with overdue rock-star swagger, before coming full circle with melodic, anti-corruption hit ‘Brazil’.
A ‘Man Who Fell To Earth’ for the pandemic-age, maybe. But Declan McKenna is most compelling as a frontman when the inter-galactic glam-rock is stripped back, and his biting social commentary is left to speak for itself.
Declan McKenna played:
‘You Better Believe!!!’
‘Be An Astronaut’
‘The Key to Life on Earth’
‘Daniel, You’re Still a Child’
‘Twice Your Size’
‘Make Me Your Queen’
‘Listen To Your Friends’