What Do You Think About the Car? lives up to its hype.
Declan McKenna has had anointed status as the U.K.’s next big thing since winning the Emerging Talent Competition in Glastonbury at just 15 years old. His debut album, What Do You Think About the Car? is a culmination of his career from that triumphant moment to now, a blend of slick singer-songwriter chops and charisma with more varied soundscapes and an earned (if at times overwhelming) sense of youthful outrage about our rapidly deteriorating world.
“Brazil,” his breakout single about FIFA corruption, is included, but his more recent tracks display a sharper and more fiery political consciousness where McKenna does an impressive job of articulating the tricky position of being sentient enough to care about world affairs yet also young enough to be easily dismissed by the powers that be. “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” is an early highlight, in which McKenna rails against hand-me-down disillusionment atop a fuzzy Britpop backdrop. “Haven’t you any shame? / Have you got no morals? / Teaching them how to aim / No sadness and no sorrow,” he sings, taking aim at the previous generation and their misplaced priorities.
His musical range is impressive for a songwriter his age, where the tendency can be to keep the musical stakes low. Instead, McKenna (and producer James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco) craft varied and intricate soundscapes. “Isombard” has a new wave synth thump that veers more towards Phoenix on the pre-hook and chorus, while “I Am Everyone Else” is equal parts earthy and astral, a sunny and surrealist throwback that recalls bands like Peace or The Libertines.
While McKenna has a knack for metaphors and a willingness to tackle substantive topics, at times it can feel like What Do You Think About the Car? has a bit of a me vs. the world mentality that is endearing but also shows some of his hubris. “Bethlehem” is pretty, with intricate guitar and McKenna’s syllables drawn out in Local natives fashion, but its critique of religion is too broad and not anchored in specifics. “Codes, you follow codes and break them / For a love is only what does suit you most / Hope, I hope and pray for love to reign / For love is what I give through my own codes,“ McKenna sings in the role of a religious leader.
The album’s closer, “Listen to Your Friends,” was co-produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij; it’s a galloping track that showcases both McKenna’s strengths and the areas where he could clearly use improvement. Batmanglij helps craft an instrumental that feels like it could’ve fit on his stellar album with The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, and the mix of indie rock and baroque pop suits McKenna well. In the middle of the track, McKenna does something of a rap about the bevy of problems society faces and casts them simply as the rich punishing the poor.
“Do 10 minutes of research and in turn find / The problem is poor kids who want holidays in term time / The problem is poor kids who can’t afford the train fare / So we up the train fare and charge them for not paying the train fare, he says, again playing the role of the unfeeling person in power. He’s not wrong in his diagnosis, but the delivery is clunky, and McKenna has shown previously on songs like “Brazil” that he’s capable of a speedier, more verbose singing style that doesn’t sacrifice his gift for melody.
As the world continues to face a myriad of social and political issues, McKenna will surely have plenty of ammo for his next record, and it’ll be fascinating to see how his activist identity shifts as he gets older. What Do You Think About the Car? lives up to its hype, but if he can continue to develop his perspective as he ages it might wind up being the least interesting record of his career.