Curious and experimental, Declan McKenna’s What Happened to the Beach?, is an intriguing blend of that ever so familiar and beloved early 70s/late 60s Beatles sonic magic mixed with that magnetic David Bowie “it” factor.
Auditorily speaking, the album may not suit the tastes of everyone. There are some standout tracks like “Nothing Matters” and “I Write The News” and others that admittedly fly under the radar and don’t hit nearly as hard as they could. As a whole though, What Happened to the Beach? is a chaotic tale of the self and it is nothing if not entertaining and easy to get lost in. It’s a perfect soundtrack for a summer drive.
Kicking off the album is “WOBBLE,” a groovy little tune that encapsulates and eases listeners into the psychedelic landscape that is to grow and follow. McKenna’s lyrical capabilities are put on full display as he provides an introspective and slightly humorous look at the way change may be perceived: “We wobble to the beach / ‘Cause life’s really changing / Laugh about the blue and grey / What’s it say, what’s it not say? / I’m off to Tenerife / ‘Cause life’s really changed me / I used to cry at home all night / Now I might in the sunshine.” Through the construction of this song, we are given a glimpse at what happens when he leans into trusting his intuition. It is quite clever the way that McKenna makes listeners slightly disconcerted while also giving them the space to feel at home as he makes comforting declarations of discomfort about change and sets it against an equally unnerving subdued electric instrumentation that is supported by an acoustic foundation. It all works together, though it seems like a lot to happen in one song, but when talking about change in a track- the more change the better, right?
“Elevator Hum” is next in the listing, and credit must be given to the careful stacking of the instruments in this song. Every sound is placed intentionally and gives this track an undeniable joy that just floats and bounces. Kudos to producer Gianluca Buccellati, whose notable work includes much of Arlo Parks’ Collapsed in Sunbeams.
Now, as mentioned, The Beatles’ influence is palpable in this album. McKenna’s “I Write The News,” emulates a mesh of “Blackbird” and Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Monkberry Moon Delight,” which is a pretty lofty comparison, but well earned. The cadence and jump in tempo are striking and thought-provoking and carry well with the message of the lyrics; “I write the news / I know you can’t make sense of my southern views / Yes, London prices might seem stiff / But they’ll roll you a spliff so you can’t refuse.” As he is no stranger to calling out social and political injustices in his songs (take his earlier hits “Brazil” or “British Bombs” as perfect examples), McKenna’s take on spotlighting the issue of who writes the news and how we, as a society, perceive differences in opinions is admirable as he makes the whole concept digestible in a tune that is audibly engaging and catchy.
Other definite standout additions to McKenna’s discography are “Sympathy” and “Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine” which sit back to back in the heart of the album. “Sympathy” is a summer indie bop; with its light, speckling flute, heavy percussion, easy-to-follow lyrics, and a generally positive disposition it just hits at a steady pace and affirms itself as a tune that is sure to get stuck in any listener’s head. On the other hand, “Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine” takes on a slightly darker tone with a very syncopated 80s intro and lyrics that once again, offer contradiction and relatability: “I found love for the little things in life / I’m not satisfied with what I want.”
As we now lie within the mid-point in the album, we come to “Breath of Light” which isn’t a bad song by any means, but it is one that may go unseen by the masses due to its extraterrestrial nature. If you’re into experimental pop tunes that feature lots of breathing and a jumble of seemingly nonsensical lyrics that reference “cosmic lies” and being a “cheesecake junkie,” then this one is for you. While it is weird, it does have an underlying message that perhaps speaks condolences to those who don’t totally fit in. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing little song, but not one that holds its own against the previous two tracks.
However, “Nothing Works” flips the script back to the former and proves that dancey, high-energy tunes do work. Unfortunately, “The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)” which follows, doesn’t hit the mark quite as well; there are intriguing elements, but not enough to give this song much replay factor.
With their more lo-fi attributes though, “Honest Test” and “Mezzanine,” are subtle and dreamy in a way that is just pleasant for casual listening.
Wrapping up What Happened to the Beach? are “It’s an Act” and “4 More Years”. While some may find the drop that comes with “It’s an Act” odd or out of place, it is impressive. The way that this song differs so much from the other true gems of this album, is quite poetic. In a shower of glittering keys and hypnotic horns, the track beautifully unfurls this facade, which has been created to portray an almost frenzied, positive exterior that is represented through the album’s instrumentation, alongside introspective lyrics that generally speak to a much larger meaning about the self and all that the self goes through.
These final tracks lead listeners to wonder what is next for Declan McKenna. Do we have to wait four more years for a fourth studio album? Who knows? What we do know is that What Happened to the Beach? is a musical ride. While it does not hand out aces on all fronts, it remarkably returns to classically flamboyant roots that urge the importance of enjoying life.