Declan McKenna review – breathless, exuberant pop-rock maximalism

(SWG3, Glasgow)
The glitter-loving Enfield boy wonder has a firm grasp of the grand gesture – but could do with changing things up

‘They say you play this venue twice in your career: once on the way up and once on the way down,” jokes Declan McKenna, at the second of two sold-out shows on the spin at Glasgow’s SWG3. “It’s great to be back!” As they do in response to almost any utterance the glitter-loving Enfield boy wonder makes tonight, even a mildly self-deprecating icebreaker, his young fans shriek like mad.

McKenna’s career arc is nowhere near its zenith yet, as he belatedly comes galloping out of the gate in support of a second album which, were it not for the small matter of a global pandemic, could have already turned him into one of the biggest stars in Britain by now. In thrall to Bowie and the Beatles and awash with big choruses, Zeros is a record so redolent of some long-lost second wave glam rock oddity that it was even edged out of a UK No 1 last September by a reissue none more synchronous than the Rolling Stones’ 1973 album Goats Head Soup.

Its songs are stomped into life without understatement. By the end of opener Beautiful Faces, a shower of confetti has already fallen. During the Farfisa-organ-licked breakdown of Emily, the room is filigreed in a cascade of light from not one but five glitterballs. Leading the charge in a silky white roll-neck shirt and tan sleeveless jacket, dropping twanging space guitar solos on his sparkling gold Telecaster, the mulleted McKenna’s flamboyance and good cheer is – at risk of using a word nobody likes to hear at the moment – infectious. But where the camp is high, the stakes feel low for an artist who carries the typically ball-and-chain tag of “voice of a generation” with unreasonable lightness, yet shows only so much ambition musically.

McKenna could never be accused of shying away from the issues of our times. The softly rocking Make Me Your Queen brings people hurtling back from the bar sloshing their pints to roar along to a song about abusive relationships and the patriarchy. Inspired by the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home later entreats young people to find their political voice. McKenna’s precocious way with a lyric – “God bless the weatherman, who has gone out of business since the psychoactive substance ban,” he sings on Listen to Your Friends – had already set him apart aged 16 when he made his breakout by winning Glastonbury’s emerging talent competition. It only sets him apart the more so now aged 22. The problem isn’t the messages but the medium.

Popping off ... Declan McKenna.
Popping off ... Declan McKenna. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

After about 10 songs of breathless, exuberant pop-rock maximalism, McKenna doesn’t have anywhere else left to go. The synth-strings bathed intro to Listen to Your Friends carves out some atypical stillness and lets his voice momentarily shine, before being bludgeoned by another tub-thumping drumbeat. McKenna doesn’t need to pivot to doomy electronica or extended flugelhorn solos, but it would do his music no disservice at all to change things up a bit occasionally – explore more varied and complex moods, textures and rhythms.

The most dramatic gear shift we get is when McKenna plonks himself down at the piano to let fly Zeros’ best moment Be an Astronaut, another interstellar baby Bowie song which crescendos with his guitarist Isabel Torres smashing a Brian May-worthy theatrically screaming solo. By rare contrast, his most rapturously received number Brazil – comfortably the greatest song ever about written about Fifa corruption – is a gloriously gawky-awkward piece of bouncy guitar pop. British Bombs pops off (how else) with another confetti shower, McKenna leaping from the drum riser. His firm grasp of the grand gesture can be in no doubt. But his longevity may lie in discovering a more delicate touch.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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