Both bubbly and gritty, Declan McKenna’s new album “Zeros” is thoughtful, self-aware and a total jam. While his first album was catchy, sweet and rooted in the growing pains of the teenage years, “Zeros” expands both in sound and lyrics.
The album begins on a note of hope with the track “You Better Believe!!!,” a song much like McKenna’s previous work. Despite the vibrancy of the first track, evidenced in a slightly pop, slightly alt-rock sound complete with a strong and simple chorus, the tracks which follow dip down in severity but not in sound.
Transitioning from a familiar sense of youth and exuberance, McKenna gains maturity and creates songs which touch on depression. “Be an Astronaut” introduces a character named Daniel, who continues to emerge throughout the album. In this track, McKenna sings, “You will tell them what went wrong / And they’ll say you’re lying / But you were born to be an astronaut / And you’ll do that or die trying.” Daniel appears to know what he wants the rest of his life to look like and he’s prepared to go to great lengths to accomplish that. But, there’s a sense that those goals are impossible or that people disapprove of them. “Be an Astronaut” is observant and playful, yet simultaneously raw and somber.
Daniel appears again in “Daniel, You’re Still a Child.” Here, the kid that once had massive optimism about his dreams is caught somewhere between confusion and reality as mental health comes into question through lyrics like, “You spent ten days in bed” and “You just wait ‘til Daniel hurts himself.” In the style of Morrissey, the contrast between pop-grooves and lyrics touching on a detrimental mental health disorder produce a sense of discordance that thrusts listeners into Daniel’s bed-ridden, aimless position. Lyrics like, “You got a death wish, child / Four cans of pesticide to drink” play over synth-loops, and that sense of sinking into your comforter by way of descension into your brain all the while life indifferently moves past your window materializes in McKenna’s musical musings.
Songs like “Be an Astronaut” and “Twice Your Size” feature sharp, savory guitar solos interrupted by grungy lyrics drowning in malaise about sticking it to the man. These riffs create a bitter, punk-like sentiment with a touch of rock ‘n’ roll, a tantalizing contrast to the bubblegum thread McKenna weaves throughout the album.
While some songs are overwhelming with their complexity, “Emily” adopts a saddening and sobering simplicity that plays off the sensibilities of despondency enacted by those who ignore the frailty of mental health. It sets a noticeable contrast to the heavy sounds of the rest of the album. With lines like “Emily don’t you know / That it’s hard for me,” “Emily” operates off a very jaded tonality that mirrors the saddening reality of a culture that often turns away from acknowledging the importance of mental health.
One thing to especially note about this album is how clever the lyrics are, as seen in “Sagittarius A*.” Restless and wild, the lyrics deserve some pondering: “Everybody gets so tired of hearing what you said / When you think your money’s gonna stop you getting wet” This character is a “trust fund baby” sick of normalcy and seeking adventure. Yet, McKenna notes in his ever-clear observation, that nobody truly cares where the adventurer goes. It’s a little unnerving to experience such a cynical stance, but despite the little bit of bitterness, the album manages to maintain a sense of hope and optimism, at least for Emily.
Declan McKenna’s “Zeros” delivers both a groovy, danceable sound while contrasting this playfulness with acute observations and sympathy. The album is simple, edgy and subtly moored to the loss of adolescence and the acquirement of poor mental health. McKenna’s ability to talk about such topics finds a perfect balance between understanding and unfiltered, serving as the perfect reflection of the realities of youth today.
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