Declan McKenna's banger filled, critically acclaimed second album Zeros sees the 21-year-old artist provide a nod to 1970s glam rock. Josh Robinson reveals why it's his album of the year so far.
Declan McKenna released his second album Zeros in September 2020. This was a highly anticipated follow-up to his 2017 debut What Do You Think About The Car?, which confirmed an impactful arrival into the indie rock scene.
My personal entry point to McKenna was his colossal single 'Brazil', a song released in late 2015 that went onto be an international hit. The opening lines “I heard you sold the Amazon, to show the country that you’re from” sets the scene for the track’s subject matter; the awarding of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the corruption surrounding it. Besides the catchy hook, it was the fact this teenager tackled such a big topic so fearlessly that fascinated people.
Jump to the present and, after listening to his sophomore album Zeros several times, I have decided it is destined to be my album of the year. That is a big call, I know. I feel that the fact I went into Zeros as somewhat* of a neutral to McKenna puts me in a nice position of being able to make that statement. I was not too blinded by bias or having been a bona fide fan at any time previously, so he had to win me round almost completely and he did.
So naturally this belief compelled me to delve back into his earlier discography and found an even deeper connection to him, including revisiting 'Brazil' properly and finding new loves retrospectively. He put out a standalone single last year named 'British Bombs' which at time of writing is that song I’m most excited about playing once I’ve got up in the morning. It is an anti-war anthem. By now I had learned that he makes a habit out of discussing important issues, he is not afraid of being labelled a political artist. I love that.
*The reason I’m tentative here is that the lead single, 'Beautiful Faces' wowed me that I think I may have already been reeled in prior to listening to the album. If I had to put my neck out for the best song it would be this beauty. With a guitar riff that demands a head-bang alongside thought-provoking lyrics, it was the obvious lead single that admittedly softened me up by the time this project came out.
Zeros has a round, traditional ten tracks with a total run time of just over 40 minutes. It starts off with my favourite album curtain-raiser I’ve heard in a fair while called 'You Better Believe!!!' It is the perfect opening track in the sense it conveys excitement and eagerness whilst also showcasing some of the finest lyrics on the record. After a hard hitting backend with guitars to the front and McKenna attacking the vocals, you’d be forgiven for expecting the song to end cleanly or with some guitar reverb after a final grand note. Instead the song drops down into a crooning final verse:
“I’m off out to buy a bag of Quavers And Nike trainers – comfort you can feel And you know that it’s real because you saw it at the station God’s creation With a half off summer deal”
It’s followed up by a nice, mid-tempo number 'Be An Astronaut' where he introduces a main character named 'Daniel' who is referenced not only through the song but the whole album. McKenna can be seen performing this song quite beautifully on live appearances such as on Later… With Jools Holland where he is solo on his piano, sporting the sort of pop-star look that makes his stylistic influence by David Bowie apparent.
Then comes the 1-2 punch of lead singles 'The Key to Life On Earth' and aforementioned certified banger 'Beautiful Faces'. The former sees him take us through his sights and thoughts as a young person knocking about in suburban London. It’s perhaps the lines in the bridge that offer the best hint as to what he muses about during, singing: “Call in, to wake you up in the morning iron your suit and tie forever until you die”
This comes before an outro full of angst which included this cutting line “Come work in Sainsbury’s babe, until you’ve had enough”. The official music video reflects his ambition as much as it does his sense of humour. He casts actor and apparent lookalike Alex Lawther alongside him in it and it’s a great watch.
Daniel earns his name in the fifth track title 'Daniel, You’re Still A Child' where McKenna steps up the glam rock, 60s/70s inspired sound. The opening verse reiterates again the creative licence he affords himself lyrically, managing to weave in jokes and references with important topics. He shows this masterful lyricism especially well later on in track eight 'Rapture' where he ridiculously forces “nature” to rhyme with “Mrs Thatcher” all whilst still taking the time to bemoan Maggie Thatcher’s “cruel” legacy. It definitely feels like this is a cathartic one for him, channelling his anger and worry as he explodes into the high notes of the chorus. The two songs that precede it are really solid.
'Emily' feels like a fans’ dream as it feels like a cover of a Harry Styles song. And because of that, naturally, it not only has Styles’ kind of vocal delivery but also his most overt influence, Fleetwood Mac, in the guitar section especially. 'Twice Your Size' succeeded it and this one is perhaps the biggest slow-burner from my perspective. I thought it was decent enough on first listen but it became a very easygoing song to just stick on and be casually bopping your head to. That said, it’s probably the most forgettable song on the record.
Anyway, fast-forwarding back past 'Rapture' and it’s the penultimate track 'Sagittarius A*' which encapsulates some of the outer space feeling on the album. McKenna explained in an interview that he had read this was the name of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way; this probably lent itself nicely to painting an apocalyptic sense of dread. He seemingly hones in on environmental concerns, painting a picture of the future with a story of the past: “So Noah, you best start building”.
He then checks out with an earnest, low-key closer called 'Eventually Darling'. As he closes out the song and the album, he repeatedly asks 'Would you do it again?'. Here he appears to be outwardly questioning the people he surrounds himself with, or his direction in life, but if you viewed it simply as a direct question to the listener as whether they’d listen to the album again, my answer is a resounding yes.
For me, Zeros the best album of 2020 so far and if you’re still not convinced, give it a whirl. First, you better believe…