By Emma Furrier
Declan McKenna’s highly anticipated sophomore album, 'Zeros', launches the indie rocker into the stratosphere of stardom where modern commentary meets conceptualized narration, all wrapped up nicely in a glam-rock packaging. The album boldly takes heavy topics riddled with controversy and conspiracy, such as capitalism and climate change, and presents them in a way that engages listeners through an intergalactic unfolding in an extensive concept album. With a Ziggy Stardust momentum, it forecasts the world’s state of affairs through a science fiction lens and plenty of political critique. In true Declan McKenna fashion, he has maintained his socially conscious approach to lyricism, while drastically elevating his musical direction and instrumentation. Succeeding his praised 2017 debut album, 'What Do You Think About the Car?', McKenna’s follow-up has proven him to be a shining light in a world plagued with autotuned, thoughtless hits. McKenna follows the route of Brit-rock greats, while simultaneously creating a path all his own while he takes us along for an atmospheric ride on 'Zeros'.
The album’s opening track, 'You Better Believe!!!' kicks off the record with a prominent energy and an in-your-face sense of urgency. We find our narrator on a rocket ship leaving behind life on Earth and all of humanity, headed for a tumultuous final destination of uncertainty and self-exploration. Could this perhaps be a societal metaphor? The structure of this opening track serves a purpose, as it introduces us to the conceptualized world McKenna has created, and launches us into this journey alongside "astronauts" whom parallel the listener’s own human experience. McKenna’s vocals on this track escalate to a peak where we find him screaming, “We’re going to get ourselves killed!” while erupting into a crescendo of sound, musically simulating a rocket taking off. He then sings, “What do you think about the rocket I built?” providing a tongue-in-cheek reference to the title of his preceding album, and a jab at our self-indulgent, fast-paced society. This track is essential, as it prepares us for the album, and sends us along for the journey ahead. It urges us to buckle up, as the album pleads us to save ourselves before it is too late.
McKenna references the character of Daniel multiple times throughout the album, although there is still a sense of ambiguity in the characters and tale he has created, leaving room for interpretation. We first meet Daniel on the second track, 'Be An Astronaut', which finds him at the beginning of his excursion into space, telling him “you’ll do it or die trying”, which (spoiler alert) we later find concludes the album. On this track, McKenna creates a big production while recalling memories of youth, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes while he ascends into the unknown. In an interview with Apple Music, McKenna noted 'The Age of Adz' by Sufjan Stevens inspired him in terms of production and atmospheric feeling on this cut in particular. It presents the notion that life is fleeting, so you should act before it is too late.
'Zeros' was released at the perfect time, as we now find ourselves struggling to keep afloat in a world on fire. Frequently throughout the album, we are urged as listeners to reflect critically on the systems in which oppress us, and those in which we have accepted while turning a blind eye. In homage to Orwell’s '1984', the dystopian universe that McKenna has created address the freedoms willingly omitted in a world of complete surveillance presented by technological advances. In our modern age of hyper-connectivity and self-inflicted Big Brother, tracks like 'Beautiful Faces' and 'Daniel You’re Still a Child' provide a poignant criticism on social media anxieties, the pressures of youth, and how technologies provide an immersive and overbearing experience that propagate inequality. Each track carries the album on a trajectory of human experience, fortified by socially charged lyrics such as “You're part of something bigger than the laws of nature/Mrs. Thatcher/Your cruel heart navigates the world we live in” ('Rapture').
By the middle of the album, Daniel’s story reveals that he has lost himself in the world; therefore, he has left it altogether. As the album draws to a close, listeners are forced to equate Daniel and the astronauts to our own condition, leaving us with one final question: What do we do now that we have found ourselves here? McKenna answers this with his signature obscurity, allowing us to ponder over the end of the world on the tracks 'Twice Your Size', 'Rapture', and 'Sagittarius A*' as well as our own consciousness and free will on the ending track 'Eventually, Darling', alluding to the realization of our own mortality.
Is McKenna taking us on a 2020 Space Oddity journey to leave Earth behind and begin a better life elsewhere, or is it a quest to save humanity? We’ll leave that up to you, but regardless of conceptual intention, the album collectively illustrates McKenna’s musical aspirations, spurred by our rapidly changing world. While thematically this has been done before, McKenna is not in the business of copying anyone or anything. His sound is uniquely his own, and his approach is incredibly relevant to our modernity. Reminiscent to the likes of those who excelled before his time, nodding towards David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, 'Zeros' gravitates in the realm of catchy pop melodies, interlaced with glam rock ideations and treatments. The album excels in reflecting our modern world, while allowing it to dream of something bigger, and what could be bigger than outer space?
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