Day 30: Bully — Losing

There’s no point in holding anything back anymore. In recent weeks, the secrets which corroded the souls of sexual assault victims for years are now being unleashed to hold horrible men accountable. Though the messenger’s reputation should never be rehabilitated, even George W. Bush thinks Donald Trump is worthy of condemnation.

The stakes are obviously much lower than serial sexual abuse and emboldened white supremacy, but Alicia Bognanno draws great power from the personal grievances and struggles she airs on Losing, the sophomore effort from her Nashville, TN based band Bully. The resulting 12 tracks are a swirling mix of intimacy and righteous anger, updating the sounds of the past for use in the present moment.

Calling this a breakup album is perhaps an unfair oversimplification, but the persistent use of the second person implies that Alicia’s anxieties and desires don’t exist in a vacuum. On opener “Feel the Same,” everything she tries feels incapable of resolving whatever hurt or tension remains after some sort of falling out. From there, it feels like much of the album plays with the idea of people and space: namely, what happens when we avoid and collide with the people we know too well? “Kills to Be Resistant” and “Running” deal with proximity (or lack thereof) to those we know too well. Other tracks find Alicia hoping to avoid the oppressive thoughts that one’s absence — or presence — can generate, reluctantly admitting “well I guess there could be something missing” while on her own, but not shying away from the self-destructive series of events that coming back together can lead to on “spiral”. There’s no easy resolution to any of this, because people are irrational beings who contain multitudes, and it’s almost impossible to move through the modern world without wanting things — or people — that directly contradict with our shaky sense of self.

What is clear, though, is that Bognanno pours everything she’s got into each of these songs. She’s the owner of the most compelling vocal chords in modern indie rock, able to softly sing sweet melodies and unleash fury in the same breath. Her vocals are high in the mix for a good reason: they act as their own instrument, dialing up the abrasiveness when the situation calls for it. There’s a sharp edge even to her soaring melodies, and she truly sells the idea that letting these lyrics tumble out of her are a means of last resort, a way to reclaim power and push back anxiety. She uses her voice, literally and figuratively, that fans of past riot-grrls like Corin Tucker and Kathleen Hanna can’t help but enjoy.

The way the album’s music is arranged also lends credence to the idea of Losing as a cathartic, confessional release. Despite the move to “major-indie” Sub Pop, the album avoids overproduction. The less-is-more approach that Bognanno no doubt learned during her internship with the legendary Steve Albini is used to great effect here. It almost feels like Bully has invited listeners into their practice space, a magical place where the worship of 90’s post-Punk Broke gods is sincere and studied. One can hear traces of Fugazi on “Seeing It”. That’s not to say these tracks sound derivative. There’s an unconscious amalgamation of influences here: it never sounds like Bully’s going out of their way to sound alike or different from anyone. They’ve just developed an organic sound that anyone raised on the bands who walked through the door Nirvana opened up can enjoy.

It’s still unclear if Bully took their name from the assholes who fight as a way to run from their own demons, or Teddy Roosevelt’s way to say that something was great. Either way, Losing shows that the name fits. Bognanno and co. use their music to reclaim agency in a messy world, and they sound damn good doing it. Keep punching.

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