What can one song say about an artist? How much can we read into someone initial release to the public? As we all know first impressions are important, but with music, first impressions can also be misleading. Who an artist is at sixteen will certainly have little relation to who they will become as they grow and mature. This is the quandary facing young Declan McKenna. There is a lot to read into with his first and only song. “Brazil” announces itself as the holy marriage between Johnny Marr/Smiths guitar lines and vintage Britpop. As an added bonus, lyrically the song is far removed from the traditional love struck teen emotions that populate most early work.
McKenna shot to prominence—and incited a label bidding war—earlier this year by winning a stage slot at Glastonbury on the strength of his performance at a local talent show. The young singer has since shrouded himself in mystery (there isn’t even an official website at this point, merely a Facebook page and Bandcamp site) as he works to complete new material. So what we are left with are internet crumbs.
Live in Paris
Scavenging through YouTube, I found a live performance he did in June in France (skip to 3:20 in the above video). McKenna takes the stage in one of those mid-day slots that most festival goers rarely pay attention to all by his lonesome, which for a teen in his formative years is a statement in and of itself. A multi-instrumentalist, he programs all the keyboards, drums and strums the guitar all as one entity. His floppy hair sways back and forth, which makes him look like the long lost son of a Gallagher brother or Ian Brown of the Stone Roses before puberty got a hold of him. The crowd’s chatter indicates that many are not interested at first in what the youngster is offering. Slowly though something miraculous happens, the crowd noise dissipates as McKenna’s talent begins to shine through. As the smoke wafts behind him, Declan finds his stride on stage and begins to show off a bit. The guitar playing becomes stronger and more pronounced. The crack in his voice is no longer a hindrance but a part of his overall sound. By the end of the song, the crowd is swaying and clapping along. He’s got them.
His stage banter between songs is that of a shy young man, more comfortable behind a keyboard and a computer than in front of 10,000 people on a hazy Paris afternoon. His second offering is a ballad of sorts, heavily influenced by the dots and loops of mid-career Radiohead. His voice has now moved down an octave to match the droning synth sound. He mumbles his lyrics, a sign that maybe this song is more a work in progress then the polished, clean first song. The pop has seeped out of his sound and been replaced by something slightly more menacing. There are traces of trip-hop sprinkled in for good measure. McKenna seems to be playing with his influences, searching for his own sound right in front of the crowd. An artist is being born note by note. This is clearly not just a teen dream or a one hit wonder.
An artist is being born note by note. This is clearly not just a teen dream or a one hit wonder.
But what do we make of his actual recorded output? “Brazil” is a catchy song no doubt. An ode to the corruption that has plagued FIFA and international soccer, “Brazil” is the oddest of pop singles, one that is undeniably an earworm but also a sharp critique on sports, money and power. Beginning with the soft strums out of a guitar, then joined by a shuffling beat with McKenna’s lilting vocals wafting over the entire construction. There is a bit of a lisp in his voice that is quite endearing as he snaps at now-suspended FIFA President Sepp Blatter and his ilk, “Cause I haven’t bought you and I haven’t sold me, but the people are dying to get on TV.” Then the song shifts its gaze inward as the narrator questions his own commitment for a moment before stating defiantly, “I’ve got a mission and my mission is real”. It’s here, in the clarity of his youthful defiance, that we see what is possible. I can imagine a world where thousands of people are bouncing along to this song and shouting those words at the top of their lungs. It’s the promise of Declan McKenna that is so intriguing.
So are we overreacting? Is Declan McKenna a new voice of a generation candidate or another YouTube sensation that will come and go? Still in school, can young Declan continue to find his voice or will the ever looming machine stifle his talent? In an old interview on Sky News, he comes off as a bit shy and unassuming. Letting the long hair and music do his talking, but with the savvy to name drop Zane Lowe in an interview, McKenna shuffles in his seat and says all the right things. He’s clearly born for either the part of a both pop idol or serious songwriter. The reality is we don’t know, but what we have is certainly exciting.