Bully’s 2015 debut felt like a release of tension from the band, like all of the frustrations they had were spewed onto tape in a mad vent of ‘90s inspired punk. Two years later, the band are back with their first release on Seattle label Sub Pop. The core of Bully’s sound is still here: the three piece pump out short, frenetic instrumentals layered with Alicia Bognanno’s punchy vocal deliveries. If you have any experience of the punkier side of modern indie music, their sound will be very familiar. The band’s sophomore effort, Losing, doesn’t sound like the triumphant return of a band who saw great reviews and toured extensively behind their first album. Bully seem even more done with it all than they did two years ago.
The album opener, lead single Feel the Same, channels the depression and numbness from a break up into a two minute explosion that, sonically, feels like the best moments on their debut album. The added edge of more upfront lyrics help translate the feeling of the track far better, making it more instantly loveable than those older tracks. The delivery of said lyrics is more thoughtful than previous material too, like the hook that starts as soft displeasure and transitions to a gritty outburst over the course of the song.
The vocals are strong across the board on Losing. Smart use of loose double tracking and panning mean Bognanno moves seamlessly between soft introspection, like on the track Spiral where she admits “I know how to hold a grudge/I hate that about me too”, and powerful, multi-voiced choruses.
Spiral sits as one of the most stand out tracks on the album. It feels like a breath of fresh air in the back half of the tracklist. The chorus features the most infectious rhythms on the album, something that feels sorely missed in a number of other entries on the tracklist. The backing vocals in the chorus add a nice touch to the texture of the track. Pulling away from the main vocal part goes a long way to making the vocal/guitar/bass/drums combination feel more dynamic.
A strong part of Bully’s draw is their focus on melody. Comparing this record to their new label mates METZ’s recent release, Strange Peace, there’s a stark contrast in this regard. The drones that underpin most of METZ’s album are substituted for carefully thought out melodies from Clayton Parker’s guitar lines. While the vocals generally demand your attention, pulling apart the tracks in a second listen reveals some great melodies from the guitar parts, like on Kills To Be Resistant, where some of the best riffs hide just behind the vocals and noise.
Their Sub Pop debut is a more personal affair than their first album. Every track takes aim at a dissatisfaction in personal relationships: Seeing It sees Bognanno struggling with falling out of love. There’s no romanticisation of the situation, the lyrics paint a picture of complete stagnation, like this song is just the end of a long period of apathy. Focused describes the clinging to of an old friendship. Alicia spends most of the song longingly singing about the past over the, relatively, lighter instrumental. While the more direct language Bully are presenting here works for tracks like Feel the Same, some of these tracks could be more engaging on repeat listens if a bit more was left to the listener to figure out.
The biggest problem with the project is the lack of variety. With a runtime ten minutes longer than Feels Like, Bully should be providing more than before. Instead, the smoothing out of some of the band’s previous kinks makes the tracks blur together in retrospect of listening to the album. In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be such a big issue, but this record is being released into a competitive space in the rock scene. There isn’t a deficiency of other acts to turn to with very similar styles. Since Bully’s first full length, Diet Cig have been hitting their stride and Charly Bliss have been receiving widespread critical acclaim for their debut album. When there’s so much else to listen to, justifying investing the time to really learn these songs seems tough.
On Losing, Alicia Bognanno’s group take two steps forward and one back. Feels Like was an album that forced you to fall in love, songs like Brainfreeze and I Remember keep you coming back and when you do, the unfavourable parts of its quirkier offerings start to fall away. Those experiments might not be what pull people into the band, but they’re definitely a big factor towards what set them apart in the crowd. Losing is more polished, more consistent and more upfront than Bully’s first outing, but I can’t help feeling something was lost in the tightening up of the formula.