“You don’t need to be smart.”
So goes the chorus of Declan McKenna’s recent single Sympathy. It’s a deliciously strange, choppy pop number, orchestrated by synthesized bassoons and merry-go-round organs. It’s also a mission statement for his third album, What Happened To The Beach.
McKenna, as you know, made a name for herself by ripping letters out of the headlines. His revolutionary single, Brazil, addressed corruption in FIFA.
Later songs addressed transgender suicide and religious hypocrisy; while his second album, Zeros, imagined escaping Earth after a catastrophic weather event.
His third album intentionally steers clear of such important themes and embarks on a magical, mysterious tour of sonic invention and lyrical joy.
“I’m going to Tenerife / Because life has really changed me,” he sings on the opening track, Wobble. “I used to cry at home all night / Now I’m outside in the sun.”
The turn was a reaction to the “voice of a generation” label that had begun to follow him.
“I got to a point where I felt like I had to do things in a somewhat serious way,” he says.
“This time, I went back and said, ‘Maybe I don’t have to do that.’ I just tried to let things happen and not sculpt the songs to have a specific meaning, when they just felt right.”
He has called the album “very weird” with a “strange edge” that could turn parents away from it.
“It’s not the sort of thing my father would sit down and listen to,” he told his local BBC radio station in Hertfordshire last week.
But his parents were there when the album took shape: in his house, during the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
“It all started in my sister’s bedroom, which I turned into a studio,” he says. “Well, I say a studio; I basically put my laptop in there.”