Given the crucial role frontwoman Alicia Bognanno plays in Bully, it’s certainly strange that she initially never intended to be a musician. Born and raised in small-town southern Minnesota, Bognanno hadn’t touched an instrument before attending college in Tennessee to study audio recording. While in college, she picked up guitar and ended up interning in Chicago under the venerable Steve Albini, of Nirvana and Pixies fame. In 2013, this strange path through the music industry resulted in Bully’s formation with Nashville musicians Reece Lazarus, Clayton Parker, and Stewart Copeland (who, strangely enough, has no relation to the drummer from the Police.) Bully’s 2015 debut album Feels Like proved to be a heady mix of grunge nostalgia and punk noise held together by tight, explosive percussion and Bognanno’s remarkably versatile vocals, which transition effortlessly from syrupy-sweetness to throat-shredding shouts. Given Bognanno’s background in sound engineering, it should come as no surprise that Feels Like was an extremely polished album rife with sonic intricacies that often take several listens to fully appreciate. Bully’s sophomore album, Losing, shows the same sort of careful attention to production detail, but the end result is something vastly different from the band’s earlier work.
While certain aspects of Losing certainly bear a strong resemblance to Bully’s typical sound , the album as a whole seems decidedly heavier and more contemplative than Feels Like. Songs like “Feel the Same” and “Either Way” are dominated by quick, tightly-packed riffs reminiscent of early singles like “Milkman” or “Brainfreeze,” but the album also contains uncharacteristically sparse, moody tracks like “Seeing It” and “Focused.” Bognanno’s characteristic 90s-esque vocal griminess, already a focus of Feels Like, is even more heavily highlighted this time around. Overall, Losing is significantly more consciously lyrically-oriented than Bully’s previous albums. While songs like “Trying” certainly aimed at expressing a larger message, Bully generally tended towards breezy levity with deliberately abstract lyrics on songs like “Milkman” and “Sharktooth.”
Losing‘s drastically different tone is at least partially the result of Bognanno’s bitter breakup with Steve Copeland, Bully’s ex-drummer. Tracks like “Spiral” put angsty lyrics front and center, with Bognanno and Parker’s instrumentation serving primarily as accents. While the lyrics range from confrontational to pointedly self-effacing (somewhat analogous to certain songs by FIDLAR, with whom Bully has a close relationship) the content is decidedly personal in a way much of Bully’s earlier work wasn’t. While this sense of personal malaise certainly gives “Spiral” and songs like it an extra degree of potency, Losing often treads the line between meaningful and mopey. “Spiral” is indicative of much of the album in that instrumental parts, particularly bass and drums, sometimes come off as muted in comparison to Bognanno’s singing. This is far from a major problem, as Bognanno still does a laudable job mixing the album, but it does illustrate the difficulty of dwelling on personal woes on an album without becoming tedious. That being said, most of the album strikes a fairly stable balance, making great use of Bognanno’s vocal talent while still making room for clever bits of guitar work like the “call and response” between guitars on “Not the Way” and the heavy bass line on “Spiral.”
Despite Losing‘s new direction, songs like “Kills to Be Resistant” are still classic Bully. With winding guitar riffs, crashing cymbals, and Bognanno’s scratchy, breathless singing during the chorus, “Kills to Be Resistant” recalls the opening track on Feels Like, “I Remember.” The contrast between Parker and Bognanno’s guitars is particularly striking, with the grinding distortion on Bognanno’s instrument weaving seamlessly into Parker’s riffs during the verses. In this case, the album’s increased emphasis on vocal sections is particularly well-expressed during the choruses, where the double-tracked singing compliments Parker’s manic guitar riffs and helps to heighten the already intense energy of the song.
Losing is a great expression of both Bully’s talent as musicians and Alicia Bognanno’s deft production skills. As an album, it’s a far cry from Feels Like, and while it sometimes comes close to losing the rapid-fire noisiness of early Bully, it manages to take the band somewhere new and showcase its versatility.
Buy the album here.