‘Zeros’ by Declan McKenna: sophisticated leap forward for Boy King of Indie Rock

Deep production, lyrical subtlety and instrumental details help Declan niftily evade a sophomore slump.

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(QPrime / Jeff Hahn)

Andrei Olaru, Staff Writer

Declan McKenna has changed substantially from three years ago. Granted, this is a change mirrored by nearly anyone over the age of two—but McKenna’s evolution is well worth noting because of the pivotal role it plays in his newest album, “Zeros.” 

I’d like to begin by pointing out the somewhat odd timing of Declan’s newly ended three-year hiatus. Between “Zeros “and “What Do You Think About the Car?” of 2017, McKenna grew out of his late teens and showed remarkable restraint in letting a high-profile debut simmer as long as he did. 

Clearly, that time was well spent. In the album’s first bars, “You Better Believe!!!” introduces a sound defined by depth. The drums provide a punctual backbeat while remaining plainly thoughtful, and faint vocal trills echo in a curtain of background reverb. The piano offers an audible melody, yet its purpose becomes clear as it yields to clever harmonic interplay with the guitar and bass. The production and recording, completed by Nashville’s very own Jay Joyce, is dense and lush—a soundscape deserving of the album’s cosmic subject matter. 

Perhaps the most obvious change to McKenna fans will be the lyrics. Gone are calls for activism and naked exposure of the world’s inconvenient truths. “Zeros’” songs retain lyrical impact—but now they’ve been cloaked in a gown of space-mysticism. Apparently McKenna didn’t like being so straightforward. 

As a guitarist, I have to lay enormous emphasis on the crucial role played by the instruments. Pianos and synths do a good deal of the heavy lifting in a cavernous, ethereal musical playground. With that being said, guitar and bass are the true standouts. Laser-smooth electric leads transform pleasing pop tunes into experimental mavericks. Look no further than “Be an Astronaut” to discover how well-written guitar overdrives sheer power into musical arrangements. The bass performance on the album is also among my favorites of any record, carving out a rhythmic pocket as deep as a blackhole—“Daniel, You’re Still a Child” grooves so incredibly hard that I can’t help but grin when it appears on my Spotify. Declan’s songs are masterworks of this musical era’s shimmering, intelligently crafted, technically calculated pop-guitar innovation. 

The song structures are rewarding and dynamically rich. Sudden tonal shifts define the dazzlingly eclectic acoustic/electric fusion of “Emily.” “Beautiful Faces” toys with volume swells over a 1975 “Love Me”-esque stomp. Unfortunately, I found myself suffering from some album fatigue by the seventh track “Twice Your Size,” but the song managed to save my drifting affections with a knockout extended outro. 

However, fatigue insistently trickles through and comes to dominate the latter half of “Zeros.” Holistically, McKenna builds magically on the legacies of bygone glam rockers like Bowie and Queen, but personally, I found this tracklist deviated too little from that neo-glam aesthetic. I can’t tell if “Rapture,” “Sagittarius A” and “Eventually, Darling” are veritably the weakest songs of the album, or if their appeal is just dulled through overexposure. The same full-band crescendos and wailing guitar bends that initially endeared me to “Zeros” come off as somewhat cookiecutter by its close. 

Yet the fact remains—if “Rapture” is one of your album’s worst songs, you’ve just released one hell of an album. 

Tying “Zeros” together is sonic maturity. Compared to “What Do You Think About the New Car?,” a foundation of sophistication undergirds the poised creative attitude and precise execution of this release. Declan’s music, though commercial, is not meant to be taken lightly.