Declan Mckenna – Zeros
Making a great record is often all about balance. The balance between accessibility and experimentation. Between evolving your sound from record to record, and still keeping enough of the hallmarks that made people fans in the first place. Finding a happy medium between channeling the familiar and presenting something new. Regarding the latter, we often find ourselves drawn to the familiar; we find something that we like and we stick to it, use it as a comfort blanket. It’s why we see so many movies being remade, so many stylistic trends from decades past coming back around again. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with clinging to the past, especially the good bits, but draw too much from it and the nostalgia can backfire. People will begin to wonder “why bother with an imitation when the real deal is right there?”.
The marks of the past are all over Zeros. Declan McKenna wears his influences on his sleeve as he dives headfirst into 70s glam rock with this latest record. Bowie comparisons abound with a loose Ziggy Stardust-esque space opera rearing its head at various points across the record, and the opening synths of standout track ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ sounding like the estranged half-brother of ‘Ashes To Ashes’. I can’t say I blame him; I mean if you’re gonna borrow from someone why not borrow from the best? Some of my favourite records from recent years have similarly worn their influences proudly. Childish Gambino stunned me with his take on 70s funk on Awaken, My Love!, channeling the likes of Prince and George Clinton. Classic soul flows through every facet of Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate in such glorious fashion, and throughout his discography Hozier has shown real reverence for the rhythm and blues records that inspired him. What makes these works stand above the rest is in how the artists put their own spin and imbue their own personality into the sound. It’s as much a personal story about the mark their influences left on them as it is about the influences themselves.
Musically Zeros lacks that mark of character and fails to offer much of a contemporary take on the style. To all intents and purposes it feels like a 70s glam record (albeit with some fantastic, highly polished production). Even so, it manages to avoid sounding like some hackneyed pastiche akin to the likes of Greta Van Fleet. It may not break much new ground but it certainly feels like it was made with a fair degree of passion and attention to detail. It’s an album that doesn’t settle for following in someone’s footsteps and goes that step further to try and keep pace. Aside from a couple of missteps, like the chaotic close of ‘Rapture’ and the unnecessary vocal effects on the chorus of ‘Eventually, Darling’, Declan gives glam a damn good go. Zeros is fun, eclectic and vibrant from start to finish. ‘You Better Believe!!!’ is the perfect high energy track to kick off the record thanks partly to Declan’s fervent vocal delivery, while ‘Be An Astronaut’ feels like all the good parts of Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino condensed into one track. McKenna shows his skill for melodies and great hooks on ‘Sagittarius A*’ and ‘The Key to Life on Earth’, while ‘Beautiful Faces’ boasts a solo that would make Marc Bolan himself proud.
It’s in the lyrics however where you finally get a sense of McKenna’s personal touch. His signature socially conscious songwriting is a little more veiled and subtle compared to on his debut, but still very much present. You can find him name checking Thatcher and her “cold heart” on ‘Rapture’, and calling out political apathy on ‘Daniel, You’re Still a Child’ with “There’s unrest in the House of Lords, Written on sandwich boards, Outside the shop where they sell your favourite drink”. ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ looks at the seemingly inescapable struggle of working class routines (“Iron your suit and tie forever until you die”) while ‘Sagittarius A*’ deals with both the impending threat of climate change and the entitlement and ignorance of trust fund kids. These underlying messages of environmentalism and class struggle really elevate the record, I just wish Declan brought some more of his own style to the music rather than just the lyrics. As it’s lacking that unique contemporary twist on a well worn sound, it doesn’t quite stand among the year’s best releases for me, but it’s still a damn good record and well worth a listen.