Ever since her Nashville-based rock band Bully debuted, Alicia Bognanno has been compared to Nirvana – both favorably and unfavorably. The band rests comfortably in the grunge-meets-power-pop approach, and for the last five years it’s done her wonders in the scene. Non-stop touring and a switch to Sub Pop (which at one point Nirvana called home) for her sophomore record – 2017’s Losing – did little to deter the comparisons. Bognanno even did the soundtrack to the 2018 film Her Smell, which drew direct comparison to Courtney Love.
This comparison to Nirvana, and more specifically to Kurt Cobain, is a bit damning to Bognanno; while there are similarities, they only run skin deep. When Bognanno shouts into the mic, it’s coming from a totally different world than what Cobain grew up and died in. With third album SUGAREGG, Bully go back to basics as far as the approach, but the differences between the songs on this album and her debut Feels Like is that now Bognanno has accepted her Bipolar 2 disorder and is able to achieve personal successes despite the crippling anxiety that comes with it.
According to Bognanno, SUGAREGG isn’t a heavy record, it’s more lighthearted and less serious despite some of the topics covered being painful (album opener “Add it On” was written after the passing of a family member). Producer John Congleton took the reigns for this album and some of this softness could be attributed these different hands in the process. Congelton is one of the most well-respected and in-demand producers in the indie rock landscape, having helped bring the best out of the likes of Sleater-Kinney and St. Vincent, while also aided in bringing The War on Drugs some attention on Slave Ambient. Relinquishing these duties to Congleton is a new approach for the band, as Bognanno took the duty for the previous two records, and the spice added is a nice change – but this is still a Bully record.
Bognanno’s howl is as devastating as ever on tracks like “Not Ashamed”, where she uppercuts eardrums left and right, and it’s paired with the equally thrashing guitars we’ve come to expect from Bully. SUGAREGG does feel slightly different in that the moments of power-pop seem stretched further apart. Still present is Lognanno’s knack for the soft-hard-soft-hard winding, which she uses effectively on lead single “Where to Start” – a song allegedly inspired by Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – and on “You” they slam and bang through power chords while Bognanno offers up one of the more delicate vocal moments on the record.
They haven’t radically changed over the years; we still have reliable riffs that feel indebted to the 90s but manage to come off fresh in 2020, especially while Bognanno doesn’t shy away from her mental illness. “Come Down” focuses on the impact her condition had on a failed relationship, and on mid-tempo “Prism” she pours her heart out: “I can’t defeat sleep in the middle of the day / All shook up, I wake in sudden disarray / Just a mess tied in sheets and covered in tears.” If there was any notion that Bully were moving past the emotive and gut-wrenching then SUGAREGG disproves it.
Bully’s third album is nonetheless breezy, it’s unapologetic in its raggedness, and even if they aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel they still align perfectly with each other and support Bognanno wonderfully. Bully are still pushing the painful narrative begun on Feels Like, and SUGAREGG is a continuation of those themes in a way that works powerfully for them.