Bent Knee - ‘You Know What They Mean’ Album Review
Bent Knee
Label: Inside Out Music
  • 4/5
Reviewed by Jordan Blum

In terms of offering rewarding full-bodied songs, You Know What They Mean doesn’t quite equal its immediate predecessors. That said, what it lacks in concise and tightly packed assemblages, it makes up for with a grander sense of artistic boundlessness.

Formed at Berklee College of Music about ten years ago, Boston troupe Bent Knee never fails in their quest to deliver some of the most distinctively daring, eclectic, and memorable music of modern times. Although it’s perhaps most accurate to describe their sound a mixture of avant-garde/progressive rock and chamber pop, theirs is truly a wonderfully unclassifiable yet characteristic amalgamation of styles and structures. Thankfully, their fifth studio outing, You Know What They Mean, upholds that legacy brilliantly. Intentionally more experimental and fragmented than its treasurable predecessors—at least in terms of track structures and sequencing—the record takes longer to appreciate fully than, say, 2017’s Land Animal or 2016’s Say So. Once you do, however, you’ll find that it’s undoubtedly a worthy follow-up and another clear indicator of Bent Knee’s ingenious idiosyncrasies.  

In comparing it to their previous work (which included “existential angst,” “resilience,” and “sad” themes), lead vocalist and keyboardist Courtney Swain declares, “This one feels like the ‘we’ve been around the block and we’re ready to make our mark’ album.” Rounded out by Vince Welch (synth, sound design, guitar), Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums), Chris Baum (violin, vocals, synth), Jessica Kion (bass, vocals), and Ben Levin (lead guitar, vocals), Bent Knee agree that You Know What They Mean “portrays [them] as people” in a way its ancestors didn’t. Two big reason for why is that they wrote it together from the start—rather than share demos with each other and compose individually—and that they suffered a couple of major setbacks last year. Thus, they see the LP as signifying their “defiance and . . . triumph in the face of adversity.” The result isn’t something that necessarily trumps its forebearers; rather, it ranks alongside them while also doing enough differently to come off a one-of-a-kind entry into their catalog.

First and foremost, their trademark hypnotic dissonance is on full display from the start, with lead single “Bone Rage” delivering mesmerizing assaults of crunchy guitar riffs, uncompromisingly odd yet resilient rhythms, and of course, Swain’s silkily free-spirited singing and outbursts. As is typical, there’s as much unapologetic boldness here as there is playful humility, and the modest changes in varied timbres and dynamic techniques as it develops are awesome. Like much of their work, it’s beautiful, brutal, and unmistakably Bent Knee. Elsewhere, the chaotic “Give Us the Gold” is overtly alluring and symphonic before both “Cradle of Rocks” and “Catch Light” serve as two of the most subtly catchy tunes they’ve ever done.

Beyond those gems, several other tracks reveal either off-the-cuff personality or additionally diverse musical palettes. Specifically, both opener “Lansing” and “Lovell” include charmingly humanizing glimpses into some behind-the-scenes banter; as such, they make You Know What They Mean partially seem like a recorded celebration of the unflinching openness and appreciation Bent Knee shares with their fans. As for songs, “Hold Me In” is a chameleonic and surreally danceable call-to-action, “Egg Replacer” is a sparse yet unnervingly textured dirge, and “lovemenot” is unbridled epic chaos as only Bent Knee could capture. Afterward, “Bird Song” is a dreamy piano ballad whose backing ambience evokes Nosound, and “Garbage Shark” is as close as the sextet have ever gotten to harnessing Lynchian essence. Closer “It Happens” is gorgeously glitzy but also kind of funky and bittersweet, with meticulously seamless transformations making it among the most singularly varied compositions in the set.

In terms of offering continuously rewarding full-bodied songs, You Know What They Mean doesn’t quite equal its immediate predecessors. That said, what it lacks in concise and tightly packed assemblages, it makes up for with a grander sense of artistic excess and boundlessness. In other words, it feels more like a single unpredictable journey—with disjointed passages and ideas thrown in—than it does a collection of unconnected yet fully developed songs. Of course, some fans will likely champion it as their magnum opus as a result, and that’s fine, too. No matter how you rank You Know What They Mean alongside its siblings, there’s no denying how well it demonstrates what still makes Bent Knee such a unique, endearing, and invaluable force.  

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