Album Reviews

Declan McKenna – What Happened To The Beach?

(Columbia) UK release date: 9 February 2024

The follow-up to 2020’s Zeros fully embraces experimentation and demonstrates impressive range

Declan McKenna - What Happened To The Beach? There aren’t many teenagers whose first ever single was written about the FIFA corruption scandal. Yet Declan McKenna was just 17 when his debut single Brazil went viral and shone a light on allegations about Sepp Blatter and company. His subsequent album, What Do You Think Of The Car, married indie-pop anthems to weighty topics, such as the suicide of a transgender teen and the 2015 terrorist attack at Paris’ Bataclan venue.

Since then, McKenna has moved away from social commentary and concentrated on developing his musical style. 2020’s Zeros suffered a series of pandemic-related delays but when it was eventually released, it showed McKenna taking an unexpected glam rock turn.

Four years on, and at the grand old age of 25, McKenna almost seems like an industry veteran these days. His third album What Happened To The Beach? sees him fully stepping away from the ‘Young Man With Guitar Singing About Serious Subjects” image and fully embrace experimentation. The results are a mixed bag, but when he hits form it’s an incredibly exciting record.

Opening track Wobble is fairly typical of the wonky pop that’s this album’s trademark, a dreamy acoustic strum about sunshine and the changing nature of life before McKenna concludes “I’m off to Tenerife”. I Write The News is an early highlight, beginning soft and acoustic like The Beatles‘ Blackboard, before suddenly morphing into a terrific indie-funk jam that brings to mind Mellow Gold-era Beck.

Sympathy has touches of ’60s chamber-pop, the type of song you can easily imagine Ed Harcourt recording while the excellent Nothing Works is an angst-filled riff on nihilism (“What’s the point muffin – I don’t believe in nothin’ anymore” runs the opening line) and becomes very meta lyrically (“Not like I’m up-and-coming anymore….”). Musically too, it’s another startling step up, fuzzy guitars and distorted vocals building up a controlled sense of chaos.

Elsewhere, there’s spacey pop on Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine, an ode to LA debauchery (“I got a boring apartment and all of the drugs… I’m fucking dangerous, I get what I want”), while The Phantom Buzz (Kick In) is a woozy, grungy number – possibly the most ‘rocky’ song on the album – about forever chasing a high.

When an album’s this eclectic though, there’s bound to be some less successful moments. A few tracks on What Happened To The Beach? feel a bit half-sketched, and songs like the sleepy funk of Honest Test and slightly dirge-like ballad It’s An Act feel like a bit like filler.

Yet McKenna’s restless nature and dedication to evolving his sound should be applauded. It would have been very easy, at such a young age, to restrict himself to a particular sound, but What Happened To The Beach? demonstrates an impressive range that bodes well for his long-term success.

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Declan McKenna – What Happened To The Beach?
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