“Dec, what do you think about the car?” comes a muffled female voice, the first we hear on Declan McKenna’s debut album. “I think it’s really good,” comes the reply, “and I’m going to sing my new album now.” The voice belongs to four year-old McKenna, the audio taken from a home video and inserted just before the opening lines to ‘Humongous’ drag us into the present.
This brief flashback hints at just how long McKenna’s debut album has been in the making. Many of the tracks that make up What do you think about the car? were penned around three years ago, when McKenna was just fifteen years old. But these aren’t tragic teen ramblings or pseudo-intellectual dirges (AKA the kind of music I was writing when I was 16), but startlingly mature, intelligent and melodic indie rock songs that make it quite annoying that McKenna is just eighteen years old.
To dedicated McKenna fans, several of these tracks will be pretty old news, having been released a couple of years ago. Among them is ‘Brazil’, the track that made McKenna one to watch, his take on FIFA’s corruption having kickstarted his career back in 2015. The track has lost none of its bite since then, the indie pop anthem still just as sharp and pointed as McKenna makes thinly-veiled references to Sepp Blatter and Brazilian poverty.
McKenna remains concerned with social injustice throughout the album. ‘Paracetamol’ is inspired by the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn in 2014 and challenges the media’s portrayal of the LGBTQ community as well as the consequences of a heteronormative society. Other topics up for discussion are police brutality (‘Isombard’), lying politicians (‘Humongous’) and religious hypocrisy (‘Bethlehem’). So, heavy stuff.
While McKenna never shies away from big issues, their gravity is cushioned by bouncy indie pop tunes. It’s one thing to condemn politicians, but it’s another thing entirely to write a convincing pop chorus. McKenna does this best on ‘Brazil’, ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’ and ‘Humongous’, all destined to be yelled by festival crowds for years to come. McKenna’s knack for crafting catchy pop songs is matched by his ability to pen thoughtful, considered lyrics – a combination that makes him a real force to be reckoned with. In an age where most pop hits are written by half a dozen execs, only one track on McKenna’s debut features a co-writer (‘Listen To Your Friends’). Whichever way you spin it, that’s pretty impressive.
Though McKenna covers a wide breadth of topics, there is one theme that unites them. Youth plays a central role here, McKenna making the case for his generation, a generation becoming adults at a time when the world is going to shit. On ‘Humongous’, McKenna takes aim at politicians who rope in token young people for photo ops, before sending them down the river with hateful, discriminatory policies. “I’m big, humongous, enormous and small / And it’s not fair that I am nothing and nobody’s there,” he sings, embodying the despair and disenfranchisement of a million others like him.
What McKenna has done on What Do You Think About The Car? is put a voice to the frustrations of countless Millennials and Gen-Xers. Clueless columnists and pundits are constantly climbing over each other to tell the world what teens and young people think, what problems they face and how, at the end of the day, they’re all ungrateful little shits who take too many selfies. McKenna is the antidote to all that. His honest, purposeful indie rock is a rebellion against not just the media, and not just the government, but everyone who’s ever told young people they’re worthless, unimportant and disengaged. While the powers that be are telling young folk they’ll never amount to anything, Declan McKenna is here to prove them wrong.