Sometimes breathtaking music sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and other times it sounds like entire histories springing back to life. Bully have always been the latter kind of band, the kind that specialize in making the old feel bracingly new. You could make an argument that slipping a lyric like “been praying for my period all week” into a no-frills rock song is a subversive act in such a male-dominated scene, even a quarter-century after the height of key Bully influences like Hole, PJ Harvey, and the Breeders. But innovation has never really been the selling point where Alicia Bognanno’s songs are concerned. Her magic trick is not giving you something you’ve never heard before so much as making tried-and-true maneuvers hit so hard that you feel like you’re hearing them for the first time all over again.-
Anyone can yell over three or four chords at breakneck speeds — it’s kind of the point of punk rock — but few can elevate a bashed-out racket to the transcendent plane Bognanno scrapes repeatedly on SUGAREGG, Bully’s third album and best to date. This band has been blazing ahead with prodigious power and speed since blasting out of Nashville five years ago, treating ’90s-style alternative rock as a life-or-death sprint and disguising pop hooks as cigarette-scorched howls. Even when they slowed down for a spell, their music boasted a raw, restless quality native to the recordings of Steve Albini, for whom Bognanno once interned. But within the band’s discography, SUGAREGG leaps from the speakers with unprecedented force and splendor. It’s such a rush.
Some of the album’s impact has to do with prowess in the studio. Bognanno has long since proved herself a skilled producer and engineer, but this time out she delegated some of that responsibility, inviting John Congleton — one of the most accomplished producers in indie rock history — to join her behind the boards. Together they’ve emphasized the visceral intensity and harmonic richness of Bully’s songs, both the rocket-fueled burners Bognanno made her name on and the midtempo churns that have always been an underrated part of her catalog. (Bully is, at this point, billed as a Bognanno solo project.) All the moving pieces in these songs get their spotlight, and at pivotal moments everything coalesces into crushing waves of melodic noise. Bully’s prior albums Feels Like and Losing were mid-fi supernovas in their own right, but switching over from those albums to this one is like logging off Zoom and meeting up in person.
Bognanno’s writing here is sharp, too. Her songs continue to be complex machines beneath a simple exterior, full of smart little guitar and vocal melodies and surprising rhythmic pivots. Her lyrics follow a similar pattern, eschewing wordiness in favor of direct refrains that let you project your own meaning onto them, from an exasperated “I don’t know where to start with you!” to a surprisingly triumphant “I don’t know what I wanted!” She sings the hell out of lines like that, her voice fraying to the point of combustion every time she launches to the top of her range. This is phenomenal music for converting anger and anxiety into unbound joy.
That’s essentially what Bognanno was going through while writing SUGAREGG. She says the album emerged as she was landing on an effective treatment for her bipolar II disorder and engaging in better mental health practices like listening to music first thing in the morning instead of the news. The result is like hearing her work through her shit on fast forward — particularly on “Hours And Hours,” which collapses years of conflict with her mother into three and a half minutes of catharsis. Not that every song is a burst of positivity; “Every Tradition” is a scathing rejection of the notion that motherhood is every woman’s destiny. “If you’re gonna shame me/ Turn around, bite your tongue ’til it bleeds,” Bognanno sings, a wall of guitars rising up behind her. “Don’t need you to save me/ Something’s off, you’re wrong about the dream.”
So SUGAREGG is a testament to Bognanno’s mastery of her craft, both a technical marvel and a searing emotional outpouring. But none of those factors fully accounts for the album’s exhilarating sweep. Simply put, there’s something special about this one, that lightning-in-a-bottle effect bands are lucky to capture. Admittedly, many fans of ’90s indie and alternative have a built-in soft spot for songs like “Prism,” which swirls together memories of Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins and the Flaming Lips into a wistful power chord crunch, and “Come Down,” essentially a less cutesy rewrite of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Retro would not be such a pervasive concept if throttling listeners’ pleasure centers with familiar stimulants was not such a lucrative approach, and SUGAREGG does not hold back in that regard.
On the other hand, rock has been through so many nostalgia cycles at this point that by all rights an act like Bully should sound extremely played out — yet another guitar band hitting the same old beats, cranking out record after record of three-chord three-minute songs as if the 21st century never happened. Although the genre ceased to be a significant mainstream presence many years ago, there are still hundreds of bands like Bully out there in the underground keeping it alive, including a vast ecosystem of artists targeting the same ’90s touchpoints. Very few of them are able to inject such well-worn forms with such intangible dynamism. Without gimmicks or much of a narrative to lean on, SUGAREGG differentiates itself from the pack with immaculate execution and electrifying zeal, barreling into the past with such screaming urgency that no one could mistake it for anything but right now.
SUGAREGG is out 8/21 on Sub Pop. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bright Eyes’ first album in nine years, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was.
• The Killers’ heartland-rock-influenced Imploding The Mirage.
• Nas’ Hit-Boy executive-produced album King’s Disease.
• The self-titled debut from John Dwyer-led supergroup Bent Arcana.
• Secret Machines’ comeback album Awake In The Brain Chamber.
• No Joy’s shapeshifting Motherhood.
• Cut Copy’s latest dance-rock collection Freeze, Melt.
• The fifth Guided By Voices album in under two years, Mirrored Aztec.
• Former Mount Moriah singer H.C. McEntire’s second solo release Eno Axis.
• Synthpop legends Erasure’s latest, The Neon.
• The Front Bottoms’ pop-punk barrage In Sickness & In Flames.
• Matmos’ newest conceptual exercise The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises In Group Form.
• Sneaks’ astrological punk-rap voyage Happy Birthday.
• Alt-country mainstays Old 97’s Twelfth.
• Dent May’s retro confection Late Checkout.
• Death Metal pioneers Incantation’s Sect Of Vile Divinities.
• Fruit Bats’ album-length cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.
• The Lemon Twigs’ undoubtedly precocious Songs For The General Public.
• Mike Scott’s 14th Waterboys album, Good Luck, Seeker.
• Dan Deacon’s Well Groomed score.
• Queer pop standout Troye Sivan’s synth-heavy In A Dream EP.
• Kate Bollinger’s artfully languid A Word Becomes A Sound EP.