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From its opening notes, Zeros is full of energy and life. The album kicks off with a hard hitting, intense and rapid series of drum hits which then breaks open into a high impact melody of guitar and bass. This first song “You Better Believe!!!” has an irrefutable energy to it, like a party at the end of the world that one can’t wait to attend. The lyrics don’t quite match the vibes of the music to a very entertaining effect, particularly with lines like “we’re gonna get ourselves killed” and “oh I’m sorry my dear/ the asteroid’s here.”
This general tone of existence in spite of the world permeates the album, particularly on its third track “The Key to Life on Earth,” which sets Declan McKenna against a number of various forces that have it out for him. The titular key to life that he seems to advocate for is thriving in the face of opposition to one’s life, which is quite the inspirational message. On top of that, the melodies across the entire album are constructed with incredible catchiness, often lodging deep into the earworm zone: highlights include “The Key to Life on Earth” and “Rapture,” a song that deals with another of the album’s main themes.
This theme could be broadly described as ‘an ode to broken expectations’ or musings on expected potential that maybe was not lived up to. While “Rapture” certainly embodies those themes, it is maybe presented at its peak in “Be an Astronaut,” the album’s second song and a seemingly “Space Oddity”-inspired ballad to the character Daniel, who has a dream to be an astronaut and will ‘do it or die trying.’ The aspirational, driven vocals merge with the spacey guitar sounds to form an extremely well-coordinated emotional front, clear and well-understood and yet interesting and not overdone.
‘Daniel’ makes another appearance on the album in the song “Daniel, You’re Still a Child” which is basically exactly what it says on the label. This is a song from a narrator to this character of Daniel, pointing out how he is getting himself way in over his head and thrown in jail without considering the consequences of his actions. In fact, throughout the album, Daniel is presented as this high-hoping head-in-the-clouds almost idealist, who has good intentions and not a lot of rational thinking. McKenna stated in an interview with Britain’s Radio X that Daniel is in no way intended to be anyone specific to his life, and that he wanted to write a more narrative-focused project, and Daniel fit the bill.
One of the most consistent and compelling aspects of Zeros is its incredible production. McKenna is by no means an even middling singer—he is genuinely talented as a vocalist all on his own—but it is by no means easy to make anyone sound this good with so many layered instrumental tracks and effects. There is constant use of multi-track voicings, reverb and the occasional vocoder sample, all of which mix McKenna’s lyrics and melodies with ear-catching guitar, synth, bass and drum parts, each overlapping and creating a rich and tightly-knit cloth.
It’s possible that this is the best work that McKenna has ever done, and it would be quite the feat to top it in the future.