What Happened to the Beach?
Declan McKenna’s music has always been thought-provoking. Ever since the UK singer-songwriter broke through in 2015 with an indie-pop single about corruption in soccer (“Brazil”), his songs have meditated on big questions. He explored youth alienation, police brutality, and media misrepresentation of the transgender community on 2017 debut What Do You Think About the Car?, before 2020’s Zeros investigated environmental issues, the toxicity of modern life, and class divides. For his third record though, he began to lean into the idea that, sometimes, you can overthink things—that ideas he might previously have dismissed as not serious or focused enough should be pursued. “Maybe in the past, I’ve wanted to think about and plan out what I’m doing,” he tells Apple Music. “But part of what’s sculpted the sound has been following what feels good and what feels right—letting [the album] become itself, not chaining it down, and just going with the flow.” That instinctive spirit is strikingly evident on a record that mooches around in psychedelic pop (“Nothing Works,” “Sympathy”) and funk (“Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine”) and recalls Beck at his most loose-limbed and lo-fi (“I Write the News”) and the questing sounds of 13-era Blur (“Breath of Light”). That’s not to say McKenna has abandoned his thoughtful perspective on the world though. Here, he’s asking questions about the very modern phenomena of truth and its online manipulation, phone dependency, and the contrasts between your authentic self and the person you present to the world. It’s just that, this time, he’s been more abstract and spontaneous in his lyrics, opening up opportunities for listeners to forge their own interpretations. “That is quite a natural thing when you’re working on music,” he says. “You’ve created a backdrop for a track and you start riffing little ideas that align. It’s very natural to come out with things that feel in that world and shape them into what feels like a weird story that has a simple message at the heart of it. That’s what a lot of the music I listen to does. Sometimes I find out what the lyrics mean and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ because you kind of build your own little world and that’s maybe what this album does. It’s not just all fun and games. There’s little moments where the vulnerability cuts through and I think that’s really nice as well. Feels human.” Step further into the world of What Happened to the Beach? with Declan McKenna’s track-by-track guide. “WOBBLE” “I wrote ‘WOBBLE’ with Neil Comber, who’s someone I’ve worked with a lot over the years. He played those drums that are really jagged and weird, and this guitar part, which is probably one of my favorite guitar parts I’ve ever written, just came out. It came out of a period where it was still a little bit restricted in terms of going out, seeing people, and stuff [after lockdown]. But we were able to get into the studio, me and Neil, so it has this bit of sweetness to it. It does feel like something being a bit unleashed. It feels like the biggest step into the world of the new album because it combines a lot of things which are at the heart of it: the balance of emotions, the melancholy, but also the really playful ideas. The main thing, which I feel was at the heart of the album, was having this human and organic-feeling stuff combined with digital recording process and digital sounds.” “Elevator Hum” “It’s a real statement piece for the album. I almost originally thought it might be the first song on the album because it’s kind of asking you to open up and just let go while you’re listening to the album. ‘I want you to believe/You’re just like me,’ to become one with me right now. There’s something really freeing about the song.” “I Write the News” “I wrote it in my sister’s old room at my parents’ house when I was there for a bit during one of the lockdowns. I’d decided that her old room would be my studio. I just had an acoustic guitar and my laptop really. I think I was spending a lot of time looking online or reading stuff on Twitter [now X] and seeing a lot of arguments that had no way of reaching any kind of goal because everyone’s got their own version of the truth and their own idea of what’s real. A lot of the time it feels like there’s no unifying truth anymore and multiple different people can just—outside of opinion—believe that the facts are different on different issues. It’s a really, really bizarre thing to watch. So I came up with the idea to write a song where I’m going, ‘I write the news and this is what’s going on.’ It’s like, ‘I write the news.’ ‘No, I write the news.’ It’s stayed quite similar to the original demo I made with my phone—I think the iPhone recording is still what’s on the record for that first section.” “Sympathy” “It’s funny how it follows on from ‘I Write the News.’ I mean, it’s completely intentional, but it has the opposite side of things, like, you don’t need to be clever, you don’t need to show everyone how smart you are, open up and listen to each other and to your mind. Find some value in that. It’s a bit peace-and-love and I can imagine some people might see it as a little idealistic. But that’s what this album’s all about: those simple ideas that can still be very powerful.” “Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine” “I didn’t really know about Mulholland Drive when I went to L.A. [to record with producer Luca Buccellati in 2022], but I did know about Mulholland Wines [a liquor store in Hove, on England’s south coast]. The idea came together when we were driving around L.A. and pointing out things to draw inspiration from. So we got the golf carts, we got Mulholland Drive, we got this sort of weird, cool-guy party talk and stuff like that, which we observed at different parties. And it became a song that isn’t really set in one place or the other, but draws inspiration from both. I guess it feels more L.A. than Hove, but I liked it being based around an off licence [liquor store]. L.A. is such an interesting big place and there’s so many people searching for something there. And that’s really what ‘Mulholland’s…’ is—searching for good in the wrong places.” “Breath of Light” “It was just a weird little jam that me and my friend Jake Passmore did together and, gradually over time, it kind of formed into a song. We had these goblin-ish chants going on and these weird sounds and it was a gradual combination of ideas over time that went into what it is. Now it just feels like a song from Hell, a big chant or someone being pulled down to Hell. The lyrics are almost saying, ‘Welcome to Hell.’” “Nothing Works” “It started in L.A. with Luca, the chorus and pre-chorus. When I was back working on some stuff in the UK, I had Jake in the studio and we started writing the verse for it. The conversation that was being had at the time [in L.A.] was about what the singles were going to be on the album [and whether he wanted to add something more reminiscent of his previous records to the album]. But I already thought there were singles, because the album was pretty much done in my eyes. I was happy with what was there. I guess there can sometimes be a bit of fear if you’re moving on from an older sound, people might not want to listen to it or people might need the same sort of ideas to latch onto. But it doesn’t make any sense because, as a lover of music myself, I just want people to express themselves in as free a way as possible because you want to hear something you haven’t heard before, at the end of the day. So that was quite a direct moment for the album because it was putting a full stop on the end of it and being like, ‘Right, we’re done now.’” “The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)” “The inspiration came from the feeling that your phone is buzzing but it’s not. It was almost turning it into a disease or something, like, ‘I’ve got the phantom buzz.’ I think I had a lot of time on my hands at home working on different ideas and this one came out—and for a sort of erratic tune as it is, it needed a weird lyrical idea.” “Honest Test” “It feels like a love song, I guess. And it was quite spontaneously written. Quite a lot of the lyrics just jumped out, a lot of this album really just jumped out of me and I didn’t really think about it too much because it felt really good.” “Mezzanine” “This took a really long time. It came from a dance track me and my friend Will Bishop made quite a while ago with this saxophone/trumpet/Mellotron riff. And gradually, through various things, it became ‘Mezzanine.’ It’s one of the ones that jumps from world to world because it was really the amalgamation of lots of different ideas and pulling them all together. It’s got the dreamy essence of the record. Maybe it’s friends with ‘Elevator Hum’ in that way.” “It’s an Act” “It just felt like the album needed something like this to ground it and bring it down to earth at the end. It leaves you with a really different note. A little bit like ‘Nothing Works,’ it’s a look behind everything else. Sometimes I think in performance, as in life, it can kind of all just feel like a bit of an act or you’re sort of putting your face on to do what you’re doing. It came out of a time where I was thinking about that a lot and feeling perhaps it was quite hard to really feel like I was being myself. I think a lot of artists get that, whether it’s, as I say, on stage or just being around in life really, it’s a constant feeling sometimes. So it’s a sadder one, but it’s nice to sort of bring it to that point. And it felt important to the record.” “4 More Years” “[The title wasn’t originally in reference to upcoming elections], I actually wrote it when England got knocked out of the  World Cup. And that was it really. But it feels like more than that [now]. Sometimes you’ve just got to take the inspiration when it jumps out and maybe it then doesn’t feel like that on the record, but serves a different purpose.”