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?
If you'd like to find out more about Declan McKenna or his new album 'Zeros', links to all his social channels are below via the icons:
By Demi Palmer
Lianne Charlotte Barnes, more commonly referred to as Lianne La Havas, is an indie singer born in London. “La Havas” was taken from her father’s full Greek name. The feelings her music elicits don’t quite fit into a single or definitive genre- rather she’s created space for her own sound. Much of her original fame is attributed to being the backup singer for Paloma Faith, but as she started to embrace her unique music tastes, she became well regarded by a wide variety of artists such as Bon Iver, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Coldplay and her cultural music mentor - Prince. Her studio album, Is your Love Big Enough, won iTune’s best album of the year in 2012 and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Her album, Blood, followed in 2015, which was a lyrically decorated, colorful and lush collection of emotions and melodies. Most recently, she released her third album, 'Lianne La Havas', which is a musical expression of her metamorphosis towards self-love and self-acceptance. The title references her name and she explains that in being at the center of all the songs, she’s onto something very true to who she is. The album lies at the corner of her most true identity, between her Jamacian and Greek heritage and is an open invitation for listeners to figure themselves out, just as she is executing for herself.
The album opens beautifully with her song 'Bittersweet', already a title that represents the duality that exists within herself and the complicated situations that she’s orchestrated. She sings the story of a dead-end relationship with a partner that she knows she must end, but feels trapped in doing so. Quite blatantly she sings, “this shit is going nowhere.” In the song, she avoids that partner in their attempt to make it work as an effigy of self-avoidance. She’s realizing the need to effectively communicate with herself in order to communicate with others, such as this partner. She also expresses a need for distance; not only must she distance herself from her partner, but also old habits. In a rap genius interview, Lianne admits that this song is about reconnecting with oneself and realizing that certain things may need to change in order to take the steps one wishes to take. But more importantly than acknowledging unfulfilling situations, is mustering strength and courage to will oneself out of them. Towards the end of the song, Lianne encourages herself by repeating the phrase, “What are you waiting for” in hopes of taking the next step past acknowledging a bad situation. The chorus chants, “bittersweet summer rain, I’m born again,” hence a turning point that encapsulates an invigorating restart in her life. This song fully expresses Lianne’s ability to acknowledge what’s sweet in a bitter situation and that both words will always co-exist; one cannot happen without the other.
Her album continues with the single, 'Read my Mind' which covers a sweet, whimsical encounter of meeting a love interest before the track for 'Can’t Fight' begins. 'Can’t Fight' exhibits the theme of strength, and the absence of it; it fully accepts where one is in their journey. The song is layered behind an upbeat and playful tune, in an attempt to make a frustrating feeling, something to relate to and celebrate. In this song, Lianne is aware that something is not good for her and in people’s attempt to pull her back from it, she instead dives fully into it. Hence, she expresses, “you’re pulling me back and now I’m going under.” Lianne doesn’t shame herself, or try to talk herself out of it. Insteads, she is self-aware of her needs and provides herself the room to experience the highs and the burns. She sings, “everything's right until it's wrong, but something about you feels like home...you know that you got me gone.” Since the beginning of time, people have purposely made decisions that they knew from the beginning were wrong, whether it was Adam and Eve knowingly eating the forbidden fruit or Brutus knowingly killing his close friend, Caesar. In this song, Lianne understands that she can’t fight her needs, and instead, dives fully into it, which comes with a new set of learnings on its own.
'Paper Thin' immediately follows 'Can’t Fight' as if it were the natural consequence of her decision to knowingly enter a bad situation. The song is structured as a self-written letter and reminder to be gentle with herself and to handle herself with grace- the epitome of self-love. 'Paper Thin' is a figurine for the condition of her heart and ego. She fully understands her pain and that it is valid, and reminds herself that God has not left her. This further supports another theme that her spiritual forces are always working for her and never against her and that she must be patient in her healing journey. Lianne opens up about her feelings of self-doubt and lack of confidence, an appropriate topic for an album that is centered around her truest feelings and vulnerability. While parts of herself have permanently changed, as what usually happens during self-transformative growth, she seeks to better understand different ways to access her new self, as evident in her lyrics, “give me the other key, your heart’s wide open.” However, her vulnerability in airing her pain will eventually lead to freedom, as she expresses in the song. She reassures herself with loving phrases such as, “I know you’re made of better stuff” and “I just want to love you” clearly referring to herself in this letter of self-love.
'Weird Fishes' is situated in the middle of the album after the interlude; it is a turning point in not only her reflection, but also musically. While the beat opens with drums and symbols similarly to other songs, she rearranges the rhythms to resemble rock or alternative genres and eventually softens the intro with a simple piano melody. Her turning point is symbolic because it occurs musically and lyrically. She sings about being at the bottom of the sea, broken and picked over and apart by worms. However, Lianne has demonstrated earlier in the album, her understanding of transformation and that to emerge as new, one must shed what is old. Therefore, at the bottom of the sea, Lianne leaves behind her carcass. With her phrase, “turn me onton phantom,” it’s evident that her old self has expired and a new spirit has taken shape to escape the dark, cold place where she previously existed. Her metamorphosis transcends delicacy, just as the beat in the song transforms into something more subtle when compared to the intro. Lianne’s beautiful recount of being at rock bottom and rising as someone stronger, is on brand with the many themes of transformation, self-love and acceptance within the rest of the album.
Lianne’s album, cunningly named as herself, is really a journey within. It’s written as a recount of what it feels like to be Lianne La Havas, while also encouraging others to define an album for their own lives. Musically, the album is crafted with raw instrumentals and paired with tender vocals, imperceptibly expressing the authenticity and vulnerability of her own journey. It’s a beautiful take on simple art forms and what it means to strip something down to its core, bereft of flashy embellishments. Throughout this entire album, I was able to relate to every song, and while her journey is unique, the themes are present in everyone’s life. She tugs at the battle of the brain and heart and the compromises that follow the manner in whichever way the scale tips. The ode to herself is one which has made me question, what are the songs in my own personal life, and what are the stories that have defined me the most? Perhaps the importance does not lie within the stories itself, rather the connection of the dots between them, and the creation of a unique path towards-self love.
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