Music Reviews
What Do You Think About the Car?

Declan McKenna What Do You Think About the Car?

(Columbia Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

There’s a famous clip of Jarvis Cocker saying that Pulp might only be remembered for Common People, but - as he astutely puts it - "I don't care. It's a good song." It's possible that Declan McKenna can already relate to that situation with a track he released when he was 15. After a flurry of label offers, McKenna took matters into his own hands and self-released Brazil. That song, featuring shimmering guitars and commentary on the Brazilian World Cup, saw the Hertfordshire-born songwriter abandon his A-Levels to pursue huge tours, his ordinary college routine soon replaced by late-night TV appearances in the USA. 

Despite being first released in 2014, Brazil does appear on What Do You Think About the Car?, but by placing it second it feels like a formality, before he tries to prove that he’s no longer coasting on past glories. And McKenna manages to build a convincing case for an album that is infectious, in both its confidence and choruses. In many ways, What Do You Think… is a perfectly teenage album; it’s smart and it’s naive, it’s funny and it’s bleak, and, most importantly, it understands the appeal of pop while being frustrated at the apolitical landscape in which it exists.

By bringing in Arctic Monkeys collaborator James Ford to produce most of the album, it’s not surprising that the album attempts to build upon a 00’s indie-pop sound rather than take any massive risks. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s inclusion is a shrewd decision: Isombard and The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home include riotous choruses and the grand instrumentation is far beyond many debut albums, but it’s all the better for it - especially on Humongous, the album’s opener.

There are some signs that this album has taken years to finish, however. The most obvious tell is that McKenna’s voice (which had barely broken on the earliest tracks) has improved significantly, but there’s also a contrast in both the production and writing. While the older songs were often dense with guitars and keyboards, newer cuts, like the ballad Make Me Your Queen, give more breathing space. The album is disjointed in places, and there's an argument to be made that some of the older tracks should have been re-recorded rather than just pushed out again.

That being said, even if the production wavers, the writing is consistently strong. McKenna discusses war and religion on Bethlehem, gender and mental health on Paracetamol and the far-right on Isombard. These are heavy topics for writers to fit into pop, and some of the links are tenuous at best, but it’s refreshing to see someone at least attempt to sidestep the usual tropes of British indie rock. Paracetamol, inspired by the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who had been subjected to conversion therapy, demonstrates McKenna’s lyricism at its strongest. The opening verse is the most poignant on the album, describing “a girl, fifteen, with her head in a noose, because she’s demand to live, she’s damned to choose.” 

While such unsubtle, heavy-handed writing could soon wear thin, McKenna uses it sparingly enough that it never feels forced. Rather than trying to position himself as an overtly political artist, he instead manages to create something that feels wholly representative of what being a teenager is like in 2017. If Lorde was aiming to soundtrack a chaotic house party on Melodrama, What Do You Think About the Car? is the soundtrack of the much less glamorous high school angst.

As the album closes, a spoken refrain lists the people and institutions that have been scapegoated by those in power - “poor kids who want holidays in term time," welfare, free healthcare. On an album full of brash, fun indie-rock songs, McKenna wants to remind us that he is standing for something here. Forget about Brazil being the pinnacle of his success; he’s only just getting started.