A creative mind must openly experience the world and its muses like a child does his surroundings — artists must play. Avant-garde pop band Bent Knee is a sextet that has built a playground when it comes to music and critical thinking, which they concentrate into lush soundscapes that question society’s harsh realities.
Boston-based Bent Knee cemented its six-person music collective after attending Berklee College of Music. They pulled together their self-titled album and dove into a string of tours around the country by 2011. By 2014, their second album, Shiny Eyed Babies, caught the attention of Maryland label Cuneiform.
Say So (2016) feels like a concise and mastered piece in contrast to the band’s earlier sound, as if they finally stumbled upon a clear translation of the elements they had been playing with. This more matured chaos caught the attention of Inside Out Music (Sony), which Bent Knee signed with last year.
The melodic outcome is akin to a Chuck Palahniuk story put to a sound frequency: mildly uncomfortable yet constructed in a way that’s irresistible. Their songs are elongated into chapters, as if each topic they address has facets that require a separate emotive ode. Add a theme of soft yet dystopian lyrics, and you’ve got a story worth listening to.
The plot is set by bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth. Chris Baum (violin) and Vince Welch (synth, sound producer) embellish the story with sometimes playful, sometimes chaotic melodies, which Ben Levin strings together with adaptive and dynamic guitar work. Courtney Swain (vocals, keys) narrates tales that question society’s darker sides with a voice that coos and quivers, wails and whispers.
Together, the sextet paints scenes of sex and love, economic and political despair, human nature and its relationship with technology. According to Swain, the song “Land Animal” on Say So is a critical examination of how humanity’s God complex can either flourish or be destroyed by our capability to create technology. Although her intent is dense, her lyrics are bare-boned poetry, adding a digestible quality to the song.
This is perhaps Bent Knee’s greatest strength as artists: They play with their materials to get listeners to question, to think critically. That, undoubtedly, is a work of art.
Bent Knee plays 8:30 pm Thursday, June 28, at Hi-Fi Music Hall; $10 adv., $13 door.