The Genius of Declan McKenna

On the 11th of April 2015, a 16-year old Declan Benedict McKenna topped Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent competition. The teenager beat out Shields and Kog and the Zongo Brigade to the top spot as they finished 2nd and 3rd respectively. His spoils? A £5000 cash prize and a main stage slot at the festival that year. Can’t be bad for a kid who still lived at his Mum’s house.

Before his win, NME had named him ‘one of the most sought-after acts’ in the UK. Why? You might have heard of a little song called ‘Brazil’ he had released that year at the age of 15. The Enfield native penned the political banger as a ‘triple collateral’, targeting the ill-prepared 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government and many corrupt FIFA officials: especially the infamous Sepp Blatter.

He was even invited onto Sky News to talk about the correlation between football and poverty, he told them, “[i]t’s expanding into things further than I ever meant it to. It’s quite cool, thinking about the monster I’ve made with that song. People take a lot of different things from it”

The tune was staggeringly adult from a lad who was still sitting his GCSE’s, but it set him on the path to become one of British indie music’s future darlings. ‘Brazil’ would later appear on his 2017 debut album ‘What Do You Think About the Car?’, the name of which stems from a home video recorded when the Londoner was 4-years old. His parents had come home with a new Toyota Previa, and his sister asks the then toddler:

That’s So Raven. (Declan McKenna, Patterns, Brighton 2018) Credit: Drew de F Fawkes

“Dec, what do you think about the car? Do you like it?”, to which he replies…

“I think it’s really good, and now I’m gonna sing my new album now!”

The title track ‘Humongous’ has the audio of this exchange as it’s introduction, meaning it’s the first thing you hear when you pop the record on. It’s a charming opening to an album that spawned some massive tracks for McKenna, including: ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’, ‘Why Do you Feel So Down?’ and ‘Paracetamol’.

Rolling Stone claimed on its release that “McKenna has built an activist-centric body of work exploring religion, gender identity and other thorny political topics’. The youngster is astonishingly mature in his song writing, an example from this album is Track 6, ‘Isombard’. The song is a catchy electronic pop tune blended with a catchy hook as a melodic guitar that slips in and out of the mix as it meanders through its 3 minute and 43 second runtime.

Lyrically, ‘Isombard’ is a satire on right-wing news corporations that is loosely based on the famous sonnet ‘next to of course god america i’ by E.E Cummings. The poem is a satire itself on blind patriotism. It speaks through the lens of a nonsensical drunkard who is unaware of his country’s distortion as all he can see his is own nationalism. In a strange twist of irony, this track would later join the FIFA 17 soundtrack, obviously they hadn’t heard ‘Brazil’.

An activist on the pavement in Whitehall opposite 10 Downing Street in 2018. Source: Alisdare Hickson

McKenna followed up his debut with the politically charged ‘British Bombs’. To the backing of a bouncy Britpop beat the artist heavily criticises the UK’s international affairs approach, with particular focus on the country’s involvement of selling bombs to Saudi Arabia. This ammunition is used by them to bomb the innocent civilians of Yemen, who are stuck in a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran.

And if it’s not a f*cking war crime. It’s a total waste of your time. And getting so much worse. Get real, kid, your country’s been at war since birth now” (British Bombs, Declan Mckenna)

There is a comment on the music video for this song that encapsulates his efforts better than I ever could. Eva Sjö writes, “Declan makes music for politically frustrated indie kids and I’ve never felt more represented”.

We live in an age where kids can no longer be told what to think. British teenagers are ashamed of their imperial and colonial roots, Generation Z are stewards of this Earth and they want to leave it in a better way than they found it. McKenna is the poet to their post-modern beliefs.

McKenna is releasing his sophomore album ‘Zeros’ this August, and I for one am beyond excited. Three singles have already dropped, each more interesting than the last. The new sound is sonically thunderous and booms with new confidence  from the springboard of his greener first effort. Lead single ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ tackles how badly human beings interact with one another. The video includes Alex Lawther from the critically acclaimed Channel 4 show ‘The End of the F*cking World’ because McKenna’s fans think they’re doppelgängers. Not only is he politically woke, he’s also social media savvy with his hordes of fans.

Follow-up single ‘Beautiful Faces’ critiques the façade of influencer culture and even his own career as it is made to look better than it seems. His newest effort, ‘Daniel, You’re Still a Child’ dropped last week and tells the story of a boy who is alienated by his own world as he grows older. With a maturity beyond his years and a writing style reminiscent of the late David Bowie, McKenna is one to keep a keen eye on as he sprints headfirst into the future (probably in front of a green screen).

I’ll see you when he plays in Brixton next April.

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