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Declan McKenna’s “What Happened to the Beach?” Makes Waves in Winter

Declan McKenna’s latest album “What Happened to the Beach?” may not answer the titular question, but it definitely brings listeners back to an era long before McKenna’s own time. Released on Feb. 9, 2024, “What Happened to the Beach?” is the English singer-songwriter’s third studio album and continues the trajectory of McKenna drawing inspiration from his own musical ancestry.

“What Happened to the Beach?” overall is incredibly reminiscent of the Beatles in their “Magical Mystery Tour” period. There is an intense, maximalist feel throughout the tracks, each employing its own use of intensely layered melodies, instruments, voice modulations, and additive sound effects. McKenna’s preceding album “Zeros” accomplished a similar objective by serving as a modern lovechild of Elton John and McKenna himself. So while “What Happened to the Beach?” serves as a natural trajectory of McKenna’s career, it is unfortunately not his best album by any means.

“Wobble,” the first track on the album, presents itself as a nice introduction to the album with the recurring reference to the album’s title by explicitly asking “What happened to the beach?” Other than that, the song is a one-time listen, as the monotony of the track can get tedious after only a minute.
Two songs later, the beginning of “I Write the News” gives the feel of a demo track but then transitions into the second half of the song that feels like—and there’s really no other way to describe it—sitting below an underpass. What starts out as light and airy turns gritty; a finish that’s different from the rest of the album. The lyrics, however, use typical McKenna social commentary, similar to that of his earlier tracks of “They Key to Life on Earth” from “Zeros” or “I Am Everyone Else” from his debut album “What Do You Think About the Car?”

“Sympathy” unironically was the song of the summer as the album’s first single release and radiates an intense aura of ELO’s iconic “Mr. Blue Sky” with the beginning syncopated horns. The song’s gradual build forces any listener to nod their head and tap their foot.

“Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine” is another addicting song that must be laced with something other than its beachy vibe and rollercoaster wave of low guitars in the background. The title can’t help but lure in thoughts of Los Angeles’ Mulholland Drive, despite the comical nature of the song with lyrics “I got a boring apartment and all of the drugs / I’m fucking dangerous, I get what I want.”

Track six “Breath of Light” is certainly the most sonically outlandish track of the album and calls to mind the 70s and 80s. Strangely, or perhaps fittingly enough, it reminds me of the second half of “With You” from the Broadway musical “Pippin,” written in 1972, with its whiny vocals and pumping undertone beat.

“Nothing Works” is, without a doubt, the best song on the album and the most intoxicating. Out of all of the songs on “What Happened to the Beach?”, it is the most similar to songs from “Zeros,” so it serves as a seamless segue between the two eras. Lyrics like, “You tell me I don’t relate to the kids no more / Now I feel like I’m letting them down,” let listeners in on McKenna’s self-reflection of his own songs and perhaps any criticism he’s received for not producing solely politically-related music. Hits like the indie classic “Brazil” and the invigorating “British Bombs” have been McKenna’s claim to fame; “Nothing Works” is the commentary on his own activism.

“The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)” produces a heavier rock feel compared to the hazy daze of the previous songs on the album, thus again providing fans with the familiar sounds of “Zeros.”
While the remaining songs on the album unfavorably blend together after “Phantom Buzz,” “It’s an Act”—the true last song of the album—fits with McKenna’s tendency to end his LPs on a melancholy note (see “Eventually, Darling” and “Paracetamol”).

“What Happened to the Beach?” listens better as a full experience rather than isolating individual songs, which is often the case for most albums. Nevertheless, McKenna delivered yet again with this audible journey, and fans can only hope that, as Track 12 suggests, there won’t be another “4 More Years” until his next album.