Album Review: Declan McKenna, ‘What Happened to the Beach?

    Having made a name for himself in the late 2010s, Declan McKenna has returned a brave exploration of psychedelia and jangle pop, marking a colourful and confident turn in the artist’s career. From the onset, there is no mistaking that McKenna’s sound is decidedly different, both from his politically-charged indie debut What Do You Think About the Car? and the glam-rock that defined 2020’s Zeros. McKenna is back to posing questions through album names, with What Happened to the Beach? doubling as the first lyrics heard on the record. The opener’s sharp notes and unexpected progressions keep the listener captivated, if slightly unsettled. McKenna’s wobbly vocals, ranging from high falsettos to his more recognisable grounded tone, glow amongst loud guitar plucks that introduce the instrument set to become the star of the show.

    At times, lyrics take the back seat, in contrast to previous projects. ‘Elevator Hum’’s repetitive chorus might otherwise sound banal but takes on a paced, almost hypnotising role amid its bouncy, glittery instrumental landscape. Between the crunchy drums, video-game rings, and drawn sword sound effects, there is a lot going on without becoming overpowering. Amusing phrases evoke the singer’s time spent in California which served as inspiration for the album: “Just another California tongue/ Prove me wrong/ But I think they all sound the same,” McKenna teases.

    ‘I write the news’ sees charming psychedelic sound alterations with relaxed vocals transform into a heftier tune, increasingly embedding eerie elements including scratchy guitar, rattling sounds, and sped-up, off-kilter harmonies. In the funky half-spoken track, McKenna offers us his classic social satire, claiming to be inspired by internet debates that make it feel “like there’s no unifying truth anymore.” In general, though, the artist seems to be distancing himself from early tracks like ‘Brazil’ entirely dedicated to political critique – or at least allowing himself to venture beyond self-imposed constraints. ‘Nothing Works’, thethe most memorable anthem here alongside ‘Sympathy’, broadcasts musings on fear of letting listeners down while making tongue-in-cheek references to his audience growing up, too: “Not like I’m up and coming anymore/ So, what, if they hear me singing ‘I love war’/ I’m sure they’re big enough now.” McKenna crafts a witty, self-aware persona, adding maturity and nuance to his image rather than entirely shedding the skin of his debut-days, teenage self.

    McKenna’s potential as a genre-defying, eminently innovative musical artist is most obvious when he journeys into musical territory he hasn’t touched before. The product of such a mindset includes the texture-heavy ‘Breath of Light’, embellished with rhythmic breathing and buzzy, robotic voices – about as weird as we’ve heard him get. The refreshing, groovy ‘Mullholland’s Dinner and Wine’ is expertly arranged with the help of producer Gianluca Buccellati, with jazzy strums and light flute gradually building the tune initially intended as a “warped story about a cartoon-y criminal duo.” McKenna embeds conversations from parties in LA (“I got a boring apartment, and all of the drugs/ I’m fucking dangerous, I get what I want”) as the track floats into trippy lusciousness. The catchiness and cleverness exhibited on the record is nothing new for McKenna; still, with this particular mix of personal anecdotes, imaginative storytelling, and a whole new treasure box of sounds, he cements himself as an artist willing to venture beyond his comfort zone – a trait that is certainly paying off.

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    Having made a name for himself in the late 2010s, Declan McKenna has returned a brave exploration of psychedelia and jangle pop, marking a colourful and confident turn in the artist’s career. From the onset, there is no mistaking that McKenna’s sound is decidedly...Album Review: Declan McKenna, 'What Happened to the Beach?