Declan McKenna: A Stripping Success [Album Review]
Declan McKenna - whichever way you cut it - is a force of nature. To get a further glimpse into why we think this man makes magic, check out our feature on him on the Majoris Music Instagram.
But in the case of his EP ‘Zeros (Stripped)’, it turns out that when you do cut it to the bones, completely stripped back, you're bound into a force of nature invariably leading you to one adjective: beautiful. Whatever aspect it is that you choose to examine in this EP, or whatever musical idiosyncrasy it is that perks up your ears in casual listening - at the root of it consistently remains its overriding beauty. That feels to us like an acoustic record done right.
The EP itself is such an emphatic demonstration of McKenna's voice. How that’s demonstrated differs through the tracks, but what remains is a clever and controlled spectrum of vocals that are as purely gripping as they are just simply a pleasure to listen to. The levels and how they interact with each other are strikingly good, with the EP not afraid to be quiet, but also really not afraid to go loud - which is something we're not used to seeing on versions of songs that are supposed to be, well… stripped back.
It's related to this latter point that the EP as a whole, and it's constituent songs, feel so filling. Even though these songs are the stripped, musically empty, versions of their comprehensively cladded studio counterparts, you never at any point lose that 'interest' aspect that is a hallmark of McKenna's music. This being maintained, Zeros (Stripped) demonstrates just as much vigor and passion as the original Zeros album. Things like his song structuring and writing, as well as his voice confidently hold their own in the absence of wider production.
This is the kind of EP that can emphatically turn any previous hesitance or unwillingness to hop onto the Declan Mckenna train that musical listeners may've harboured, because it's just purely good acoustic music. And this, according to McKenna, is only Zeros (Stripped) part one. To this, we say - choo choo!
So, please mind the gap between the train and the platform and let’s get onto the music.
Track One - Beautiful Faces
We kick off this EP with sounds that are still very ethereal and produced, foreshadowing that this is an acoustic EP that will not lose the flare in production we're drawn to throughout the rest of Declan's discography. This maintenance of the sounds, lyrics and concepts help cross the acoustic divide that some may have previously been uneasy in crossing.
Even with this being so, the pace of this song relative to it's album counterpart is dramatically slower. Yet the absence of otherwise prominent things like the clear drums and ascending guitar breaks again aren't felt in the traditional sense. This song goes so far as to demonstrate that it isn't an absence in the first place, but merely a clever augmentation. It's an example of something we see riddled throughout this EP where McKenna hits the golden spot of acoustic music - where it singles out not what has been ‘stripped’ from the song, but what the stripped set-up has added and given to the song anew. Not just impactful production, but acoustic music at it's highest efficacy.
But for those who listen to acoustic songs for simple layers centred around an acoustic guitar - possibly skip this song and come back another time. We hear a pseudo-breakdown driven by the keys in the track, if you can believe it, toward the final third of the song. And if this musical incongruence wasn't enough, it's introduced with a soft 'freak out!'. It feels so misplaced, but so, so right.
Track Two - The Key to Life on Earth
Songs like this are simply such an unfiltered joy to listen to. It speaks to the edifying things of purity and completeness that make up our inner hum. For those not religiously inclined, this song is one of those that gives you an insight into the reasons there is a belief in that which is higher than us, and that which is faultless. It's everything an acoustic song should be, and more.
There's a fragility in Declan’s voice and the wider song that, although a key feature of McKenna's sound anyway, is ever more present here. Speaking in terms of pure utility, this helps bring out the lyricism that is easily lost in the sound of this track's album counterpart. This song's lyrics are those that, once heard, make you question how it was that you went without them. His voice is almost on the verge of breaking at points, and there's an emotionality to that which serves to carry you through the track with a profound feeling - whatever that be for you. For some, perhaps, reaching into the depths of emotional but confident vulnerability.
The Key to Life on Earth reminds you of the power of the keys in the acoustic set-up, creating this sound which is at the same time an accompaniment to the voice, a voice in itself, and a brush painting such an amazing soundscape upon which the strong imagery of this song rests. The keys, reminiscent of a soft Wurlitzer in this case, creates this harmonic base upon which you hear its distant mechanical sounds and a slight creaking of wood. This creates a distinctly bare atmosphere, leaving nothing able to be hidden, concealed or spun into something it is not - including any emotional barriers you might've wanted to have listening to this song. It doesn’t demand your attention, because it knows it’s going to have it.
Looking into the depths of its musical nuances, there are some piano notes that have an elongated space between them (not exclusive to McKenna, but not universally heard in acoustic songs either), and because of everything else given to us surrounding these notes, the otherwise unusual space actually feels perfectly placed. From the slight stutters in the delivery of the vocals to the sustained higher pitches; one of the most appropriate poco crescendos you might have ever heard. These moments of brilliance along with every other aspect of the song create an inescapable need to fall for it. They catalyse feelings of awe, and are the core of what we said in the intro: being the epitome of beauty.
Track 3 - Daniel, You're Still a Child
Though we begin here in much a similar place we left the last track - a simple and powerful piano accompaniment - part way through, both the guitar and the piano merge together in a sound that departs from the trend we've seen thus far in giving one aspect the centre of the stage, with all attention drawn to it. It's at the start of the fusion of these two instruments that we hear the most prominent of the space-like samples we're so used to in McKenna's music, creating a sound in entirety that largely departs from the acoustic. Similarly, the tempo that the song progresses to at it's close, feels like one you'd perhaps find on a central album rather than an orbiting stripped collection.
The indented flow you hear when the rhyming structures change in this song, particularly at the close of verse one, sound so good because these 'zig-zags' are given their own time to marinate in the rest of the track; rather than catching you off guard in a context that doesn't feel right on the ears. Indeed, such complex rhyming structures seem most appropriate given the notions the lyrics introduce us to. This relationship within the faculty of songwriting - of complex ideas giving license to divergent structuring and lyricism - is one of the things that McKenna does consistently well throughout his music. One that, when it appears in the wild, is something to be celebrated. It's part of the reason that Declan McKenna's music emanates the spirit of Bowie in sound, and that in itself is a reality of significance for this man's music.
We get a lot more of a consistent pitch in the vocals here (of course with the occasional flare of falsetto in melisma (the changing of pitch during syllables)). Although it does feel like, because of the amazing ranges we get in the rest of the EP, that this is less of the McKenna vocal package; it helps give the song a more sombre tone. The sound that embodies his glam-rock can sometimes struggle to be the interlocular between the listener and the more serious side of what he has to say, and so a less pointed complexity of pitch here is welcomed in that respect, and reminds us that he doesn't have to just traverse through the vocal ranges to still sound good.
Track Four - Rapture
We're not sure whether already loving the original of an acoustic is an unfair advantage or disadvantage when it comes to critical evaluation, but in the spirit of full disclosure, it was Rapture that first gave us the McKenna fever. It is exactly that traversing through the vocal ranges we left the last track at that stands out here. The transition between the tones of voice is just something to behold, sometimes going two or three times around the vocal block in one line. It creates this sense, rightly, that there is an artist that has such easy access to their scales, moving up and down with a fluidity seldom seen, let alone in artists so young.
This track stays true to what we think Rapture is meant to be - a song that moves you (we mean physically, but as ever, figuratively has just as much a place here!). Though significantly less disco than it's studio counterpart, the claps - which interestingly don't directly mirror a beat found in the original - keep the tempo and incline the user to a more buoyant feel than your average acoustic song. And so a clear motif emerges within the EP: acoustic, with that something extra.
There is a beautiful layered vocal close to this song that has everything you want, with the 'ooh's' and 'ahh's', screams, shouts and passion all building up to a crescendo reminiscent of what you’d expect a rapture event to feel like. This track is yet another demonstration of McKenna's astounding voice, music capability and artistic vision. He is an innovator, not just of contemporary music, but of his own music too! This is the official close to Zeros (Stripped) and shows us with the clarity of day what this EP is meant to do and be. It's acoustic, but maybe not so stripped.
Track Five - Hallucinate
Out of the Zeros canon, as it were, this track is McKenna’s Live Lounge covering Dua Lipa's Hallucinate. It's a smart song to cover, as the original sits within ‘Future nostalgia’, an album which embodies the innovative juxtaposition of blending iconic sounds from the past into the modern market. With aforementioned sonic links to David Bowie, and the overall sound of McKenna's music being incongruently pioneering for modern music, it makes complete sense.
McKenna’s Hallucinate is a song, where you always want to progress to the next part as a listener because each is as good as the last. The points at which we change from verse, to pre-chorus, to chorus, to bridge and back to verse just sound so good, and so well done.
The Future Nostalgia methodology could be said to have been applied to this version itself. Certainly, there are elements of the original we can hear in the BBC Live version but really this is three and a half minutes of taking the fundamentals of the song and putting the Declan McKenna stamp over it. Where songs from the rest of the EP have been the epitome of beauty, this song is the epitome of a cover. McKenna's Hallucinate doesn't really 'feel' like it had a home beforehand. It feels like a song that was always destined to be his, because of the way he performs- and then owns - the cover. With each elongated 'I', each vocal flare we're so used to by this point, with the way different, peculiar parts of the song are stressed over the original - this is Declan McKenna making a cover his own as if it never belonged to any other artist.
The closing to Zeros (Stripped) is also kind in picking a song, wrapping it up very neatly and putting it under the tree for a group of listeners that may not be inclined to indulge in the distinctly chart-smashing pop sounds of Dua Lipa. In a way that seems to align with his general worldview on humanity - the enjoyment of shared harmony - we see Declan McKenna break the border that has for too long existed between the realms of pop and indie/rock/the plethora of other genres this man can fit in and, specifically, the border that can exist between the listeners of those genres. It sounds good, unlike anything else and in many ways is the preferred to its original. This cover is really, in its truest form, a damn success.
And so there we have it. With the talent and vision with which Declan McKenna curates his music, any re-imagining is bound to capture some sort of fetching angle or absorbed movement through sounds you probably didn't realise you have an affinity to, and Zeros (Stripped) does that in bounds. Just at it's very base level, this is a stripped cover EP containing standout songs that could, with ease, take on their originals and give them a run for their money. We'd go so far as to say it could take on much of the musical world it involves itself in and do the same. And with that, Declan gets the solid stamp of approval, and a serious amount of respect from Majoris Music. Take from that feat what you will.