There is a moment in every great musician’s career when they release their first transcendental album. A moment when The Beatles or David Bowie put out a career-defining masterpiece that transformed them from critically acclaimed pop darlings to artists who would change the course of modern musical history. Before such a moment, they had shown promise; after, prestige.
Declan McKenna’s Zeros isn’t the musician’s career-defining masterpiece, but it is an indication that he has one coming.
McKenna, with his blend of pop and rock, is perfectly suited to follow in the line of these other British musicians. On Zeros, he seems to be working toward a powerful understanding of the relationship between music and lyrics, creating a sonic space of galactic aesthetics and proportions. Zeros is short-term, grungy sci-fi, telling modern stories with a cosmic bent.
The instrumentation is key in this experiment. The guitars churn and groan, but they’re never too loud. The piano is bouncing and the drums are roaring. Throughout Zeros, these instruments are able to add to the scale of the universe McKenna is attempting to create. Vocal modulation on songs such as “Eventually, Darling” adds emotion and layering to his ambitious lyrics.
And the lyrics certainly are ambitious. McKenna jumps from subject to subject, asking questions about love, death and God. These are all big, intense topics to cover, but McKenna seems to desperately want to cover them.
And yet, it’s too quick, too early in his career: McKenna exposes his age with songs such as the adolescent “Beautiful Faces,” a blandly organized chaos that wanders and wallows in its own noise. With entries like this, McKenna reveals that he simply hasn’t had time to mature into a full, broad understanding of his artistic vision.
At the same time, he recognizes this. “Daniel, You’re Still a Child” focuses on detachment and alienation, noting the difficulties of living in this world and having to communicate through it as a young person. These insights, however, are underlined by some run-of-the-mill instrumentation that doesn’t emphasize the full weight of these ideas. While the instruments are often grounded and unified in the auditory aesthetic of Zeros, they rarely excite.
Some of the production is trite and overly familiar. The strumming guitar and basic synth of “Twice Your Size” have been done before, and they feel divorced from the song’s lyrics. This is true across the album, where instrumentals seem to have been written separately from the lyrics. Oftentimes, a song’s music will be playing catch-up with its lyrics, which, while thoughtful, struggle against the instrumentation.
What Zeros really needs is cohesion beyond mere genre. Not just between music and lyrics, but between the lyrics of one song and the next. Some songs focus on God and religion, such as “Rapture” and “You Better Believe!!!,” while others focus their broader identity on space, like “Be an Astronaut.” Others still sound like songs from his last album What Do You Think About the Car?, with typical songs about youth and angst.
These various threads about youth, religion and the universe run amok all over the album. They have the potential for beautiful and sublime artistic expression, but McKenna doesn’t weave them together, tangling himself up as a result. He pours effort into the poetry of an individual song before apparently abandoning all but a few parts of it, leaving the listener to wade through the album to look for thematic clues.
These individual songs are often fine, but occasionally fantastic. The robotic rhythm of “Rapture” reels the listener in to its fear of the future, and highlights one of McKenna’s best uses of falsetto, which he wisely uses sparingly throughout Zeros. While “The Key to Life on Earth” sounds like a typical British 2008 synth pop record, it’s still irresistibly fun to listen to McKenna sing over the song’s groove. Tracks like these let him flex his greatest assets, with McKenna learning what works for him and using it to its fullest extent. He simply needs to refine his talents.
Zeros demonstrates that Declan McKenna is ready for greatness. All he can do now is create.