Courtney Swain has become one of my favorite voices and talents in modern progressive music. As I’ve become more familiar with her work with Bent Knee, The Ben Levin Group, and other projects, my appreciation for her vocal instrument has only increased. Her voice is one of the greatest tools in the Bent Knee arsenal, as she belts, croons, and even screams over their art rock-laden sonic landscapes in a way that is truly hers. She seamlessly switches from powerful to tender passages, in a way that is always nuanced and expressive.
Courtney’s newest EP, Growing Pains, is her opportunity to strip away the complex arrangements and theatrics, and focus purely on songwriting. Armed with her voice, piano, strings, and life experiences, Courtney takes us to a place where she is completely exposed not just as an artist, but as an individual, with emotional and intensely personal stories. The product is a gorgeous, ephemeral, melancholy journey through her mind and heart.
Opener “Wish Bone” is a strong introduction, with music that is wistful and contemplative lyrics. In many ways, it sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album. The next track, “Snow Globe” is a more lighthearted track on the surface, with several lines that made me chuckle. But, upon further listening, the song overflows with sadness. It’s a swirl of painful nostalgia and loneliness, recounted almost cinematically.
“Moon Stalker” is an ethereal, thoughtful meditation on belonging and place, with brilliant, coded words and gorgeous vocal passages. In “Glitter Bomb”, she sings of the pain of lost love, and laments the indifference of her former significant other, with lines like, “I just want to burst my heart right open/Glitter bomb your quiet eyes”. As Courtney shares the stories in each song, she paints a portrait of an eager but admittedly flawed person who seems to have struggled over time to make sense of her place, in relationships and in the world- and successfully taps into that aching feeling of belonging and purpose that we all hope for, but sometimes struggle to find.
The thing I love about Courtney’s writing on this album is that it alternates between symbolic imagery and highly personal, uncomfortably intimate feelings. This is perhaps best exemplified in the final track on the EP, “Prickly Thorn”. It’s a song that deals with the complexity of loving and being loved, through evocative metaphors that are both violent and beautiful. This song actually made my chest physically ache as I listened.
I think the best kind of songwriting is literate, catchy, and relatable on a deeper level. Growing Pains is all of those things. We all knew Courtney Swain, who is a featured alumni from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, would make an album that was musically impressive. What I wasn’t prepared for was how disarmingly emotional her songwriting would be. Artistic vulnerability can feel like a risk. When an artist shares situations and feelings that are too personal, they often fear that they’ll be overexposed. While that may be true, the product is often that listeners are able to personalize their songs in ways the artists couldn’t have imagined. Growing Pains will continue to amaze you and break your heart more and more with each subsequent listen, as you absorb and internalize the stories and symbols and meanings.
Also, a lot of my musical recommendations to my friends fall flat, because they’re too heady or weird or avant-garde, but this album is smart enough to make it better than most pop offerings, but not so cerebral that it becomes impersonal. Growing Pains is a wonderful balance between smart writing and universal feelings, and is a lovely work of art that I can’t recommend enough. Give it a listen.
Courtney Swain’s latest EP, Growing Pains, will be out on November 10, 2017. Pre-order it here on Bandcamp.