One listen to You Know What They Mean and it’s clear that, ten years after Bent Knee formed in Boston, Massachusetts at Berklee College of Music, the six-piece remain as wildly inventive and original as ever on this fifth full-length. Given just how restlessly creative they’ve been over the past decade, that’s no mean feat, yet anybody familiar with the band won’t be surprised at all to know that they’ve continued their sonic and thematic evolution with these songs.
“There’s definitely been a progression through all of our albums,” explains lead vocalist and keyboard player Courtney Swain. “There was the ‘coming out of college’ existential angst album, and then the sad album and the resilience album. To me, this one feels like the ‘we’ve been around the block and we’re ready to make our mark’ album.”
She isn’t wrong. From the opening strains of “Bone Rage” – the record’s first song proper – You Know What They Mean is an album that doesn’t just demand your attention; it’s impossible to ignore. It’s a confrontational record, one that twists and turns in bursts of raw emotion with the kind of musical ingenuity that’s become the band’s trademark. To that extent, it’s the record that most accurately captures who Bent Knee – completed by Ben Levin (lead guitar, vocals), Jessica Kion (bass, vocals), Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums), Chris Baum (violin, synth, vocals) and Vince Welch (synth, guitar, sound design) – actually is.
“We were in the best place that we’ve been in,” says Swain, “in terms of people and as a group, where I think we learned to pick our battles and just have fun writing this. So this album really portrays us as people, in addition to our music, a lot more than any of our other records. We’re a big group with a lot of different personalities and a lot of voices, but our music brings us together. On the past four albums, you could hear the music, but you couldn’t really hear who we are.”
There are two main reasons for that. Firstly, rather than bringing in demos and sharing material with each other, this was the first album the band wrote together in the studio from scratch. Produced by Welch, that approach led to a noticeable shift in the band’s songs. It still sounds like Bent Knee, but another iteration thereof.
“We’ve wanted to change our sound for a couple of albums,” says Swain, “and this is the first time that Vince was really pleased with the results. He credits that to changing the process – because there’s nothing like changing the process to get that change in sound. We’re really interested in staying fresh all the time – it’s kind of compulsive at this point!”
The second reason is that, according to Swain, the year they were writing You Know What They Mean was a particularly trying time for the band’s six members. In June, Wallace-Ailsworth missed a step while coming off stage and broke his ankle halfway through an eight-week tour. The band carried on both touring and writing without him, but given that Bent Knee pride themselves on being a creative collective, where each individual contributes to the writing and has an equal amount of input into the songwriting, it definitely shook them.
Soon thereafter, midway through another US run in November, the band’s tour van flipped over in a treacherous Wyoming blizzard. “It really sucked,” Swain says. “Miraculously, no one got hurt, but we lost our van and it was extra trying having to get back from that.”
As a result, both that turbulence and those frustrations course through this record, but so does the band’s defiance and their triumph in the face of adversity. There’s the portentous, chilling desperation of “Give Us The Gold”, the experimental yet haunting “Egg Replacer”, the blisteringly heavy torment of “lovemenot”, and the fragile and beautiful vulnerability of “Bird Song”. Opener “Lansing” and, midway through, “Lovell”, are less songs than captured moments that feature snippets of noise and conversation, highlighting the behind-the-scenes essence of a band at a turning point in its career.
Recorded at Big Nice Studio in Lincoln, RI by Chaimes Parker and studio owner Brad Krieger – who, Swain says, were instrumental in making the sessions incredibly easy and enjoyable – it’s a cerebral and visceral record that finds the band taking stock of everything they’ve created over the past decade, hungry to continue pushing their ideas and music forward as a collective to see just how far it will take them. “We’re writing the music that we want to hear,” says Swain, “and what that ends up being is this crazy chimera of all of our influences, because there’s no one leader who really calls any of the shots. We’ve gotten really good at being honest with each other after all these years and I think you can hear that in these songs.”