The youth music of every generation will eventually fall out of fashion. Depending on when you were born, you might either have a hard time wrapping your head around the fact that grunge was once young people’s music, or that it’s actually now essentially “classic rock.” FM radio has preserved the alternative era in amber, only the occasional Big Data or Tame Impala song to remind you that Singles was nine Cameron Crowe films ago, and anyone born the year Kurt Cobain died is now closer to 30 than 20. Yet that same generation that was raised on their parents’ copy of Bleach has reclaimed the sludgy and scruffy sound of the early ’90s and put their own spin on it, whether buffed and polished with a pop sheen in the case of Charly Bliss or twisted into melodic Rubik’s Cube puzzles like Speedy Ortiz. Or, in the case of Bully, they’re simply distilled and purified into perfectly concise rock anthems.
Bully‘s first two albums, 2015’s Feels Like and 2017’s Losing each captured the raw, underground aesthetic of grunge in its Sub Pop prime—which is only logical given that those albums, likewise, were released via the long-running Seattle independent label. Vocalist and songwriter Alicia Bognanno’s songs always felt more “Touch Me I’m Sick” than “Even Flow”—short, incendiary bursts of energy and discomfort just a hop and a skip away from punk rock’s teenage tantrums. But Bognanno always showcased a sophistication that growth beyond the two-minute rave-ups, Bully’s second album retaining every bit of the anxious energy while exploring a bit more nuance. She’s indeed grown up a bit since then, having gone through a number of personal changes leading up to the release of third album SUGAREGG, including a total turnover of every musician in her band, a Bipolar II diagnosis, and abandoning her social media for mental health reasons. The grungy guitars remain a constant element on SUGAREGG, but this isn’t exactly the Bully that we might be used to.
Paralleling the space that Bognanno has given herself outside the band, the songs on SUGAREGG feel less claustrophobic, less prone to overload the senses. That might not necessarily be apparent in the opening burst of “Add It On,” but it’s not long before these songs open up and begin to reveal Bognanno’s growth as both a person and a songwriter. “Every Tradition” is richly satisfying fuzz-pop that channels Dinosaur Jr. at their best, Bognanno coloring each verse with affirmations that she doesn’t need to live up to anyone else’s expectations: “You say my mind is gonna change one day/But I felt this way forever/Some things stay the same.” “Prism,” to date the longest song Bully’s released as well as one of the most gorgeously dense, a meditation on depression and loss that finds beauty amid futile attempts to move on.
More so than on Bully’s previous two records, every song on SUGAREGG feels like a single—the kind that could become embedded in the alt-rock pantheon, should some space open up sometime soon. On the punchy “You,” the shoegazing “Like Fire” and the jangly “What I Wanted,” Bognanno always finds her way toward a soaring climax. Bully has never sounded so confident, even in the face of three years of personal setbacks and challenges, and a mounting sense of despair that’s probably familiar to anyone, anywhere right now. “Everything is such a bummer,” she told NME. “I don’t know how else to put it.” SUGAREGG feels good in spite of that, a path toward catharsis that confronts the anxiety head on. It’s grunge that still speaks to a younger generation, but one on the precipice of understanding just how complex adulthood really is.
Label: Sub Pop
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.