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Review: Declan McKenna’s Zeros

The first time I laid eyes on Declan McKenna was way back in 2016. My parents were watching him perform on Later with Jools Holland, and the sight and sound of him thoroughly captured my imagination. Whether it was the black eyeliner, the glitter-covered hair, or the fact that he was not much older than me, something about him grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. He sang with such commitment to the lyrics and with such candid emotion that I’m sure anyone watching would have shared my enthusiasm.

Four years down the line and Declan McKenna has released a second chart-topping album, and I’m no less enthusiastic than I was all those years ago.

It inspires some sort of pride in me to see McKenna continue to produce good music, despite starting so young. He got his big break after winning Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015 with his song ‘Brazil’, later featured on his first album What Do You Think About The Car?. This album was full of catchy yet thoughtful songs, many built upon McKenna’s trademark talent of writing about the world of today, without losing his highly listenable quality.

This is something he’s effortlessly carried over into the new album Zeros. Lyrics throughout address the complexities and calamites of 21st century life, touching on everything from social media and global warming to urban living and the class divide. Concepts that sound overtly political on paper succeed as well-written and well-produced songs, falling firmly in the ‘indie rock’ category, but still simmering with old-school influences. McKenna has often named David Bowie as being one such inspiration, perhaps noticeable in the shimmering space-age album cover.

As usual McKenna possesses the talent for striking a specific note of British realism with his lyrics. These include lines such as ‘I’m off out to buy a bag of Quavers/ And Nike trainers’, as well as references to ‘Sainsburys’ and ‘strawberry laces’. This is an album very much grounded in our world, working alongside the reoccurring space concept, most noticeable in ‘You Better Believe!!!’ and ‘Be An Astronaut’.

Lots of these songs feel political, in a way where the exact message doesn’t quite leap out at you after the first listen – yet there’s definitely a deeper meaning in there. ‘Sagittarius A*’ is perhaps a more overt example, with its tales of dissatisfied jet-setters, and their contribution to global warming with international flights. With reference to potentially Biblical floods being on the horizon, the line ‘you think your money’s gonna stop you getting wet’ is particularly apt.

Sometimes the meanings are pretty opaque without further research, and yet the lyrics still resonate, like when ‘laws of nature’ is made to rhyme with ‘Mrs Thatcher’ in ‘Rapture’ – arguably one of the best and catchiest songs on the album.

This provides a contrast to some of the slightly softer songs on the album. One example would be ‘Eventually, Darling’, which is almost a love song with its opening lines of ‘The backyard balcony view/ Was empty as hell without you’. In an interview with Apple Music, McKenna speaks of this song as one of loss and change, something that really comes across, culminating with the line ‘Everyone leaves eventually, darling, don’t be afraid’.

‘Be An Astronaut’ is also another example of the singer’s more melancholy side, with its piano melody and heartfelt lyrics. Something McKenna consistently does well is to infuse his lyrics with meaning and purpose. It feels like he cares about what he says, and he makes the listener care too – perhaps one of the most important things about trying to tell a story in a song.

Zeros is one of those impressive albums that succeeds in being highly listenable, and yet thought-provoking, both catchy and emotionally weighty. With this combination of rich vocals and profound storytelling, practically every song is a hit – and it’s safe to say that I continue to be a big fan.

Sarah Lewis

Sarah is a non-fiction contributor, primarily writing about film, TV and music. When she's not writing she enjoys spending time on the Cornish coast, and working on her poetry.