Image: Chuff Media

On What Happened to the Beach?, Declan McKenna takes a risk – and it pays off

When the first singles from Declan McKenna’s third album, What Happened to the Beach?, were released, I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed. They sounded nothing like the roaring indie rock that defined his 2017 debut album, What Do You Think About the Car? or the grand 80s synth-pop of his sophomore record, Zeros (2020). Instead, they were stripped down, laid bare, and groovy.

But sitting down on a Saturday morning, cup of coffee in hand, and listening to the entire album front to back with no distractions at hand, I found myself forming a completely different opinion. This is precisely because What Happened to the Beach? works better as a cohesive body of work, rather than a collection of singles.

Much like Arctic MonkeysTranquillity Base Hotel & Casino (2018) and Harry Styles’ Harry’s House (2022), What Happened to the Beach? sees McKenna, an artist who had established a signature sound, subvert it completely. He replaces his upbeat, euphoric with laid-back, groovy mature tunes. The result is a woozy mélange of jazz, blues, psychedelic pop, and shoegaze.

The album as a whole radiates a playful confidence new to McKenna’s music

From the opening track, ‘WOBBLE’, a high-pitched leisurely tune with plucky guitars, washing and production coated in nostalgia, McKenna sets the record straight and takes the changes in his stride: What Happened to the Beach> is not another What Do You Think About the Car? or Zeros. It is its own thing, a separate entity.

From then on, the album only gets better. The sleek transition into ‘Elevator Hum’, one of the album’s singles, is polished, a testament to the album’s shining production, courtesy of Gianluca Buccellati (Lana Del Rey, Arlo Parks). Glossy, sunny, and nostalgic, the song is beautifully textured, with whimsical synths and drawn-out vocals mixing flawlessly with upbeat brass solos and a resounding bass that ties the track together.

The album as a whole radiates a playful confidence new to McKenna’s music, finally coming into his own and exuding charm and charisma as he does so (‘Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine’, ‘Breath of Light’). His vocals are paired with a backdrop of lilting synths and saxophones (‘Sympathy’, ‘It’s An Act’). What Happened to the Beach? is the kind of album an artist can only make once their career is well established. It may not have the commercial appeal of What Do You Think About the Car? or Zeros, but it is a joy to hear McKenna experiment with new sounds. He takes a risk, and it certainly pays off.

The track ‘Nothing Works’ is a quintessentially contemporary scathing critique of modern-day British society

But at times McKenna flies too close to the sun. Although imitation is flattery, the previous comparison to Tranquility Base is not accidental: the dreamy string-and-piano arrangements on ‘It’s an Act’ belong in the jazz bar of the Hotel and Casino on the Moon starring in Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album. If it weren’t for McKenna’s instantly recognisable voice, it would be difficult to attribute these tracks to the artist at all.

Similarly, although ‘Honest Test’, feels like the epitome of McKenna’s experimentation, his swooping, luxurious vocals come perhaps slightly too close to Arctic Monkeys’ frontman’s, Alex Turner. However, the fuzz-toned and muted staccato guitars alongside the rhythmic beats are different enough to keep the track interesting.

Politics have always been a prominent factor in McKenna’s discography, and, with an album that sounds entirely timeless, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they wouldn’t be present on …The Beach. But instead of taking the opportunity to step away from current affairs, the track ‘Nothing Works’ is a quintessentially contemporary scathing critique of modern-day British society. The track takes the baton from his previous politically laden songs including ‘Listen to Your Friends’ (What Do You Think About the Car?) or ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ (Zeros), where witty quips about London rent prices and war are juxtaposed with an endearing, upbeat melody, breezy, reverberating synths, and a punchy baseline.

‘Mezzanine’ is another standout, with its plucky guitars and reverberating vocals taking centre stage, coupled with a simple melody, which, while catchy, steers well away from being simplistic.

McKenna is always at the forefront of the musical landscape

But for someone who is known for their explosive live shows, it’s difficult to imagine how most of What Happened to the Beach? will work live. This is perhaps why McKenna chose to include the track ‘The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)’. While the track itself is perhaps slightly too upbeat to feel like it belongs on …The Beach, it is a track made to be performed live. Furious guitar riffs culminate in a frenzy of screaming and choppy riffs, with McKenna fully letting loose by the end. In its short 2-and-a-half-minute runtime, McKenna has created the summer soundtrack for mosh pits in fields and pint cups filled with Strongbow Dark Fruit Cider flying through the air. If nothing else, it serves to appease naysayers who may be upset with McKenna’s new sound.

Declan McKenna is truly something special. A child of the internet and often hailed as the voice of Gen-Z, McKenna is always at the forefront of the musical landscape. He’s not afraid to innovate and constantly push the boundaries of what his music can be, all while using his music to make a statement on the current happenings in the world. After all, he wrote his first single ‘Brazil’ to criticise corruption in FIFA as part of his Music GCSE (he got a 98% in case you’re wondering). What Happened to The Beach? is no different, and McKenna is one step closer to establishing himself as a British musical legend.


Recommended listening: ‘Mulholland Dinner and Wine’ and ‘The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)’


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.