It was October of 2016 when Declan McKenna first took the stage in Chicago, opening for The Head and the Heart at Aragon Ballroom. As I walked up Clark St. this past Thursday night, meeting Metro’s lettered sign with McKenna’s name, indicating a sold-out, headlining night, it seemed Chicago had a proper homecoming night in order.
Thursday was McKenna’s first performance back since his doubleheader at Evanston’s SPACE in March of 2018, which he calls out early in his set: screams indicate fans overlapped in the shows. It’s safe to say he has been missed in the Midwest.
His most recent album, Zeros, was released in late 2020, amidst our first year of the pandemic. It’s been a few years since fans have had the opportunity to glitter up & match McKenna for live shows again. I’d estimate 60% of Metro’s attendees were sporting sparkles in some way last night (I’ve found it’s more fun to wear it out than while quarantined in your childhood bedroom streaming “Beautiful Faces” by yourself).
His set design is psychedelic, obviously. The black and white check patterning is fitting for his glam-rock way. His face has paintings of silver down to his cheekbones and gold under his eyes. He’s expressive and absolutely grooving onstage. If I’m to name a signature move of the night, it’s the foot-stomp head-nod combo. “Emily” elicits less jumping and more swaying than his first six tracks, a combination of his 2017 & 2020 albums, but the crowd never stops moving.
His 2021 track “My House”, though slower, brings out a two-step from guitarist Isabel Torres. It’s his most recent release, highlighting the bounds of lockdown and its’ isolation. “Alright, let’s dance again,” McKenna yells at the song’s close as he segues into “The Key to Life on Earth.” It’s the perfect one-liner, indicative of the Chicago reunion that’s taken many months to materialize. This track is a perfect halfway point of his set, documented seamlessly with perfect zoom by the teenager in front of me, via Snapchat. This show was definitely teen-heavy: the beauty of Metro’s early, all-ages shows. The crowd really hits the pre-chorus on this track, absolutely a favorite. The girls in front of me headlock with love through the entire second half of this single.
“Are we bouncing tonight, Chicago?” he taunts as one of few short remarks during his time onstage. McKenna’s encore is full-fledged: five songs long. Mid-“Daniel, You’re Still a Child”, Declan slings off his guitar, steps to center stage & clicks open a can of pop perfectly timed to the song’s cue. The third single of McKenna’s sophomore album is a headbanger song to most and a make-out song to some. There must have been something about this coming-of-age song for Zeros’ character, Daniel, that hit the couple in front of me in a more romantic way. There is a certain romance in Daniel’s adolescent disillusionment, and in the visuals of Declan’s green screen fantasy world from the song’s 2020 music video. “Brazil” is second to last, and from my vantage point in the photo pit, it’s easy to read McKenna’s passion for performance from across his face. Keen on visually accompanying his lyrical irony, an electric guitar marked with England’s flag is used for his finale, “British Bombs.”
Before his end, the vest comes off, his top zipper comes down, and we’re treated to full Bowie glam with his jumpsuit undone. If I’m asking McKenna questions, I’m beginning with asking if the windy and 50-degree rain from that night felt like home, in England. I’m asking him about how being the youngest in a large family shaped him and his capacity for depth, which is evident from his public beginnings with “Brazil.” I’m asking him to tell me more about what it feels like to have had success (whatever that means) through self-written songs tackling stories of heaviness in the ways “Paracetamol,” “Bethlehem,” & “Isombard” (among others) do.
How it feels to know that your work is aiming, and succeeding, at pointing listeners to important conversations beyond themselves. I’m asking if he plans to follow Zeros and continue into space, or if he considers coming back to earth. And finally, I’m asking to raid his tour stage wear closet. Style is of evident importance to McKenna: his silver Chicago attire on theme with Zero’s space theme. At Glastonbury, Declan & his band sported shimmery gold makeup, his signature since 2017. His Instagram is full of collared shirts and blouses, sweater vests, turtlenecks, oversized and sometimes sparkly suit jackets, and well-tailored pants.
There’s this photo I saw in 2018 that’s stuck with me since I first saw it on my feed. It’s by Citizen Kane Wayne, who I knew as a photographer with Cage the Elephant; a grainy and side-eyed portrait of a teenage McKenna, wearing this perfectly pouty smirk and looking rather British. His hair is shorter than the shaggy mullet he wears now, and the front is well-tousled. He’s passing a simple gray wall that his blue-striped shirt and white pullover contrast against. I’d enjoyed & added “Brazil” to playlists, but the charm of that photo accompanied by the wit of his lyrics struck me into an affinity for Declan’s music from then on.
Photos and words by Rachel MacNeill for Staged Haze