If a little odd with a dialling down of immediacy, patience is required to fully appreciate the pay-off.
Declan McKenna has rarely shown a desire for standing still. Aged just 18, his politically charged debut What Do You Think About the Car? arrived in 2017to a wave of critical acclaim, before he raced us to the moon and back on the chaotic, Bowie-inspired Zeros in 2020. Four years on, he’s advanced his sound again on What Happened To The Beach? – sun-kissed Californian self-indulgence very much the new order of the day.
Less breathless, super fun and lightly psychedelic, the London singer’s third effort is surrounded by a warm glow of West Coast sunshine. And the slower, groove-focused approach is laid bare from the off. The album kicks off with the enticingly wonky opener ‘Wobble’, acoustic guitar plucking supporting McKenna’s reflective dreams of Tenerife beaches and high tides. Meanwhile, the summery theme continues on soothing second track ‘Elevator Hum’ – subtler than the curtain raiser and probably best described as a dreamy slow burner.
The opening run of tracks impress without the immediacy that defined Zeros, some songs taking longer to get going than others but the reward is there if you’re willing to stick around. For example, the introspective ‘Sympathy’ underwhelms until a Tame Impala-inspired final third: suntanned psychedelia and the repeated refrain “you don’t need to be clever” helping build the intrigue back up again.
What Happened To The Beach?'s most triumphant segment is, by far, the alluring midsection. ‘Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine’ picks up where the former left off with McKenna, again, inspired by Australian producer Kevin Parker for a smooth and captivating tale of sun-kissed LA hedonism. Aided by self-described “warped” and “cartoon-y” lyrics about a criminal duo, McKenna sings in the earwormy chorus: “I got a boring apartment, and all of the drugs / I’m f***ing dangerous, I get what I want”.
Where the album has been slightly elusive to this point, ‘Nothing Works’ increases the album’s intensity and explodes the record into action to bring back a more traditional, in-your-face sound that has been lacking thus far. The seventh track rallies against the expectations placed on him from interfering record executives. What begins as a frustrated rant (“What’s the point muffin? / I don’t believe in nothin’ anymore / You tell me I don’t relate to the kids no more”) soon brings in a pulsating drumbeat and a euphoric, irony-filled celebration of being true to yourself.
Such explosiveness is more than welcomed, but if you’d thought the album had peaked, think again – the ‘60s-inspired psych-rock ‘The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)’ is a thrilling journey of chaos, dizzying riffs and lyricism which – while lacking depth – add to the self-indulgent theme running through the record: “When it kicks in / Ooh, it kicks everythin’ / Blood don’t half run thin / Through a poisoned brain”.
Defined by a brighter, more exotic palette, many of McKenna’s influences on his latest come from contemporary British bands who’ve set out to achieve a similar sound in defiance of the norm. ‘The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)’ is straight out the repertoire of neo-psychedelic band Temples and there’s a touch of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino-
era Arctic Monkeys ‘Honest Test’ with McKenna’s falsetto vocal, subtle piano backing and funky bassline. Meanwhile, the celebratory horn hook on ‘Mezzanine’ echoes the most recent output by Bombay Bicycle Club.
A haunting 48-second outro closes What Happened To The Beach?. Declan McKenna repeats the words “four more years” to leave us pondering – like the wait from his last record – if it’ll be another four years to his next. Lets hope not. Because when all is said and done, the music world needs artists like Declan McKenna. Artists who strive to progress from album to album where the thought of playing to the gallery is simply unimaginable, even if it risks alienating established fanbases.
McKenna admits he felt pressured – both by fans and record executives – to neglect his own intuition on his third album. And the rejection of such feedback can’t fail but gain him extra kudos. His third is a fun yet wonderfully composed record that sounds radically different to what he’s produced before. If a little odd at points with a dialling down of immediacy, patience is required to fully appreciate the pay-off.