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I Don’t Know Zara Hedderman , June 30th, 2023 10:58

Despite a tricky birth, the second album from the Hull quartet builds and expands on the successes of its predecessor, finds Zara Hedderman

There is, of course, a level of cliché attached to the “difficult second album”, an assessment proffered whenever a particularly hyped act is faced with the task of following up from an acclaimed debut release. But there is some validity to it. Take Arlo Parks, for example. The Londoner took home the Mercury Prize for her 2021 debut, Collapsed In Sunbeams, and thereafter succumbed to the pressure of maintaining momentum, as evidenced on her second album, My Soft Machine This was most apparent in the lyricism which, perhaps with more time in the studio, felt unfinished and uninspired. As a whole, it felt rushed and this was reflected in its mostly tepid reception.

Now, let’s look at bdrmm. The Hull-based quartet consisting of Conor Murray, Joe Vickers and brothers Ryan and Jordan Smith were met (deservedly) with widespread plaudits for their debut LP, Bedroom. The ten track release introduced the group as skilled musicians, confidently demonstrating a deft approach to immersive shoegaze informed arrangements with an immense breadth and variety. In the intervening years, they signed to Rock Action, the pandemic put a pause on the music industry, and they were faced with the daunting prospect of writing album two during a time of great uncertainty and unrest.

In a recent interview, the band candidly discussed the difficulties of settling into their sound for their second record, I Don’t Know. They noted how they “weren’t mentally ready” to fully engage with the writing and recording process, how they had tried different approaches and working with different people but finally went back to basics and reconnected with producer Alex Greaves. With their latest body of work, you can trace the struggles they endured in Smith’s astute and earnest lyricism. This album gives listeners a glimpse into the hardship of being a buzz-worthy band, how that takes its toll on you mentally. Ultimately, they have managed to overcome the pressure and weight of expectation by presenting an even broader and more developed representation of the style that garnered their initial acclaim.

The excellently engaging opener ‘Alps’ immediately tells this story: “We are forever moving backwards / it seems that there’s no hope,” sings vocalist Ryan Smith. This is followed nicely with the gorgeous Radiohead-like textured guitars on ‘Be Careful’, which can be perceived as a cautionary tale of the life of a musician: “A mind worth treating / Creating simple sonnets,” expressing the ways in which the act of lyric writing can aid processing life experiences. Later on, Smith intones “Behind closed doors /We see a different concept / Trying hard to keep afloat / Drowning out the sound of fear.” And while these words seem to relate to bdrmm’s story, there’s enough universality there for listeners to apply these sentiments to their own experiences. Elsewhere, ‘Hidden Camera’ further elaborates on these themes: “A fascination with all that’s gone wrong / An overwhelming need to start again.”

Musically, I Don’t Know retains a similar wash of reverb-drenched guitars and vocals, throughout. However, there’s more grit to the production and the tones appear much darker than before. ‘We Fall Apart’ is perhaps the best example of a bridge between bdrmm’s two albums as the quartet allow themselves to indulge in their densely layered parts, they’re in no way rushed to reach a particular point or climatic end across the near five-and-a-half-minute duration. The steadiness in their performance is captivating and a pleasure to immerse yourself in. There are great rewards to I Don’t Know, in this regard. Take the My Bloody Valentine thrash of sound that introduces us to ‘Pulling Stitches’ which shape-shifts so masterfully into a brilliantly hook-laden chorus.

‘Advertisement One’, an expansive instrumental, is an instant highlight. Here, amidst the frankness of the lyrics and the intensity of the instrumentation, bdrmm completely change the mood with this bright composition buoyed by a piano melody and the restorative sound of birdsong. It’s as though they want to let the listener know that, contrary to Smith disclosing that it’s “Getting harder and harder to be optimistic” on closer ‘A Final Movement’, there’s hope and joy to be discovered in their work. That hope is reiterated on the wildly exuberant ‘It’s Just A Bit Of Blood’: “Now that we have finally found ourselves / I hope we can become something else.”

I Don’t Know is a testament to listening to one’s instincts and, crucially, taking the time to accurately capture the space and sentiments of a group at a specific moment in their lives, professionally and personally. It takes the strongest foundational elements of their debut and successfully builds a solid structure for bdrmm’s promising future.