Declan McKenna Leans Into His Creative Intuition on What Happened to the Beach?

The English glam-rock singer-songwriter’s third album explores a new sound, the pressures of young success and the ebbs and flows of creativity.

Music Reviews Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna Leans Into His Creative Intuition on What Happened to the Beach?

If you’re a Declan McKenna fan hoping for an album like What Do You Think About the Car? or Zeros, you’re out of luck. The English glam-rock singer-songwriter is exploring a new sound on his highly-anticipated third album, What Happened To The Beach?, and the project comes four years after his sophomore LP—following a string of singles that hinted at his new laid-back, synthetic approach, one of which was featured in Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell’s rom-com, Anyone But You. The album leans further into groovy beats rather than alt-rock, but it pulls from similar influences as his previous albums, such as The Waterboys, Bob Dylan, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and David Bowie.

McKenna was only 18 when he released his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, in 2017. His breakout song, “Brazil,” reached a fresh swarm of fans following TikTok virality in 2020 and has remained a staple sound on the app since. Now at 25, his newest work—What Happened to the Beach?—explores young fame and the ebbs and flows of creative work. The album cover, featuring McKenna scanning a lush green field with a metal detector, is fitting for his oddly exuberant artist persona and expansive stage presence.

When the second single, “Nothing Works,” was released last September, I listened to it nonstop—on the way to work, to the grocery store, even to accompany trips to the basement on laundry days. The track is a bottlerocket of energy, with an infectious chorus that transfers from the speaker directly into your body, lending itself to dancing free of self-judgment. This receival of the song, however, could not be further from it’s messaging. The song’s upbeat pacing isn’t joy, it’s angst. “Nothing Works” is an oozing accumulation of McKenna’s anxieties as a musician and comes from the “frustration of being boxed in and tied to expectation,” according to McKenna.

The track opens with an existential question: “What’s the point?” McKenna is addressing his people-pleasing pattern of taking advice that goes against his own creative intuition and goes on to celebrate his newfound ability to break free of that, which shines through in his refreshed sound. In part, the song alludes to the pressures of breaking out as a young artist. In the first verse, he sings, “You tell me I don’t relate to the kids no more / Now I feel like I’m letting them down. What’s the point running? / Not like I’m up and coming, anymore.”

Last spring, when I spoke to Alfie Templeman—another British alt-pop artist who was signed to his label at only 15 years old, he mentioned conversations between him and McKenna about trying to redefine yourself as an artist in your 20s. “As someone that’s kind of known as a teenager making these songs, it’s also like, so where do I go next? Is it not as impressive now that I’m 20?” he shared. “I think everyone that’s a young musician would have thought this, like Declan McKenna. If you start out as a really young artist, you’re gonna be asking yourself a lot of questions by the time you get into your early 20s.”

Towards the end of “Nothing Works,” McKenna sings a simple but potent line, “So what if they hear me singing ‘I love war’? / I’m sure they’re big enough now.” The lyrics seem to be a callback to two of his most beloved tracks, “Brazil” and “British Bombs,” which are known for criticizing Great Britain’s continuing history of war and injustices. This line explores his self-limiting beliefs, which have prevented him from being true to himself in his music by creating a stark contrast to his younger lyrics—even if rhetorical. The song’s upbeat tempo mirrors the pent-up anxiety that comes from adhering to others’ perception of your image and creative work, and carries his message better than a ballad would have. This is carried over into the last single off the album, “Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine,” in which he sings, “I found love for the little things in life, I’m not satisfied with what I want.”

“Nothing Works” is certainly one of the album’s standout tracks, and I was disappointed by the lack of other standouts on the album. A few other songs out of all 16 come to mind: “Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine,” “Elevator Hum,” “Mezzanine,” “Breath of Light,” and “I Write The News,” two of which were previously released as singles. The latter two lean heavily into Beatles influences, and they each have a sound reminiscent of “A Day in the Life” off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “I Write the News” starts soft and slow with psychedelic guitar riffs, before exploding into a cunning bass and drum-driven beat with crisp vocals. The lyrics are strange but smart, with lines like, “Everybody else gets told what to do / They know jack and I know the facts / So you better listen up or I’m calling you rude,” and “Yeah London prices may seem stiff / But they roll you a spliff so you can’t refuse.”

But, plenty of tracks on the album are ones I could get by with only listening to once. At times, it seems like the songs don’t thread together properly or are over-exploratory, with a large mix of filler music like the “Mystery Planet” three-part series, particularly “Mystery Planet Pt. 2,” which warps a slur of unintelligible lyrics. “It Takes 4” points to the four years between this album and his previous (“It takes four / Used to take only three.”) but sonically, it feels out of place. The track follows the uppity “Nothing Works,” but is excessively slow with deep, distorted vocals on loop. It bleeds almost seamlessly into the opening beats of “The Phantom Buzz (Kick In),” a fast-paced rock song, but instead of sounding well-placed, “It Takes 4” feels unnecessary. The last hard-hitting track before slipping into closers “4 More Years” and “Mystery Planet Pt. 3” is “It’s an Act,” a soft confessional about playing pretend. Over melodic harmonies, McKenna sings, “The truth would like to see you cold dead and buried and / The truth is I miss you like hell.” The song’s final, drawn-out hum feels like a perfect culmination of the album, but then the record keeps going, and ultimately ends in an audial avalanche, with sounds from across the album modge-podged into “Mystery Planet Pt. 3.”

It’s exciting to see an artist lean into their intuition and embrace their own creative influences—and that shines through on What Happened To The Beach? in a compelling way—but the album as a whole seems to be figuring itself out alongside its listeners. But, for an artist who spent his late-teens and early 20s in the spotlight, this continuous exploration mirrors the emotional spectrum McKenna built the album on. As loyal listeners take time to sit with the album and adjust to the new sound, new glimpses of light may shine through.

Read our recent profile on Declan McKenna here.

Alyssa Goldberg is a writer and photographer who recently moved from New York to Boston, where she is pursuing a master’s in Media, Medicine, and Health at Harvard Medical School. Her work appears in Teen Vogue, Sounds of Saving, Pleaser Magazine, Off Chance, Hobart After Dark, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @alyssaegoldberg or at alyssaegoldberg.com.

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