Declan McKenna’s third offering is quite the departure. Following on from the bright-eyed, fiery inspiration of his debut, What Do You Think About The Car?, and his starry space-opera follow-up Zeros, there’s been little room for pause.
Zeros, particularly, was a stunner of a scaling-up, boasting complex, dense sonics, higher concept, and some of McKenna’s – and the year’s – most bombastic moments. All signs pointed to BIG – so in the approach to What Happened To The Beach?, the biggest question is how McKenna is going to grow beyond the universe-sized Zeros.
Answer: he doesn’t. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On the cover, McKenna wields a metal detector and a puzzled expression – that’s how to approach the unexpectedly breezy What Happened To The Beach?. It’s at its best when you comb through it meticulously, paying close attention to every square centimetre and sifting through for gold.
What Happened…? opens with a freeform acoustic guitar topped off with abstract vocals asking the titular question, and it’s definitely less immediate – a drifting fade-in rather than a stomping announcement. In fact, the album doesn’t stomp till over two-thirds of the way through, when McKenna presents us with a fuzzy, familiar sound in ‘Nothing Works’, a meta prod at stifling record label politics.
Indeed, previously a McKenna fixture, actual politics are conspicuously absent on What Happened To The Beach?. By no means is McKenna obligated to comment on anything in particular, and it’s a woozy delight to hear him verge into more mellow realms: ‘Honest Test’ is an LA strut with no destination in mind, with particular intoxicating charm in the looping, staccato acoustic guitar.
‘Mulholland’s Diner and Wine’ is psychedelic and groovy, replete with horns and bubbling production, and it feels like cool night air after a scorcher. There’s no doubt that McKenna is good at the style of music he’s dipped into for this record. It’s just that he was so good at the big, bold, colourful stuff, too.
What Happened To The Beach? following Zeros feels a lot like when Harry Styles released Harry’s House after Fine Line: the shift from glamour, expanse, and excitement to the lightness, haze, and abstraction. Those who adored the former, who couldn’t wait to hear its grandiosity built on and matured, might find their expectations fall a little flat.
But to be fair, Harry’s House won a Grammy – and similarly, on What Happened To The Beach?, McKenna demonstrates some of his most intricate, ambitious writing. It’s very cool and a real slow-burner – but it’s missing a little spark.