Photo: Sophia Matinazad / Sub Pop

Bully Make Music Out of Melancholy on ‘Lucky for You’

Bully’s Lucky for You is tight, compact indie guitar rock that will get into your head even when you aren’t sure what Alicia Bognanno is singing about.

Lucky for You
Sub Pop
2 June 2023

Bully‘s new album Lucky for You is clear, catchy, and compact, with ten enjoyable songs in 32 minutes, and they aren’t hard to categorize: guitar-driven, 1990s-influenced indie rock. There is something pleasingly self-contained and containable about this: no filler or fat, no confusion about where it fits in your listening matrix, and a sense that Alicia Bognanno—nowadays, the only official member of Bully—is operating with a kind of lean efficiency that has little room or time for messing around.

That isn’t to say Lucky for You was made hastily. Bognanno probably had it right when instead of going to some famous producer’s ranch for a few immersive weeks of recording, she spent several months making a regular ten-minute commute to the studio of fellow Nashvillian JT Daly and had him produce the album. (He also plays multiple instruments on every track save one, making him Bully’s de facto other band member for the current release.) The hyperlocal approach captures the homebound inwardness and almost workaday dependability of Bognanno’s songwriting. You feel like you’re in good hands.

This feeling is in direct tension with Bognanno’s mood, which is low throughout Lucky for You. Many of the record’s songs are about her recently deceased dog, apparently. They’re loaded with lyrics about losing someone close to you in any case, but mourning a beloved companion isn’t the only reason Bognanno seems so down. In interviews, she has talked about battling bipolar disorder and kicking alcohol to get control of herself and her music, and the album’s lyrics evince plenty of regrets and even rage.

The musical output of all the above, though, is much more invigorating than you might expect. That’s another thing the 1990s were so good at: turning early-onset adult unhappiness into infectious alt-rock ardor. The less you know about how unfun Bognanno’s life sounds like it’s been while she wrote and recorded Lucky for You, the more pleasure there is to be had here. Bognanno’s guitar playing is attractively noisy, and she has the engineering chops to elevate her playing. She delivers her emotive alto with a chewed-syllable indie diction and effects that make her voice sound almost like another guitar at times, a vehicle for expressing melodies. Those melodies are worthy, and their hooks will get into your head even when you aren’t entirely sure what Bognanno is singing about.

That isn’t because her writing is obscure. The lyric sheet reveals straightforward, unfussy, self-revealing stuff. In that way, Bognanno isn’t 1990s at all (nor is she trying to be). She belongs to a younger generation who are comfortable sharing themselves in a way that her forbears never were. Grunge, from which a fair amount of her music derives, was, in retrospect, one of the more guarded subgenres of rock. Half the time, you couldn’t make sense of what anyone was saying, nor could you quite understand what was so deeply troubling the people who were saying it until after they were dead. For all their exposure, Cobain, Cornell, and Weiland were somewhat inscrutable characters. Bognanno is a comparatively open book; her life laid even barer in print than in song—or, in any case, the story she tells about that life. It’s easy to sympathize with her.

Tight and focused as it is, Lucky for You does lose some of its grip as it elapses. That’s not because its quality slips but because its scope is so narrow and its sonic palette deliberately limited. Yet just when you’re ready to call it a day—lost pet, brisk singalong choruses, dubious definitions of time (e.g. “just a useless measurement of pain”)—the album’s last two songs might make you reconsider.

The first is “Ms. America”. It’s a beautiful tune, nothing more than four chords strummed on her guitar, plus her harmony vocals. Bognanno sings with the naked directness and clarity of Liz Phair: “All I wanted was a daughter / Try my best to raise her right / But the whole world’s caught on fire / And I don’t wanna teach a kid to fight.” She barbs this heartrending lament with an afterthought that implicates us: “For you, and for me too.” It’s the world we made and that she had no choice but to inherit. For those older than Bognanno, it’s painful—and arresting—to be addressed so pointedly by such a hopeless voice.

“Ms. America” sets up another song about children and reproduction, but it’s much angrier. The closer, “All This Noise”, matches its title with a thrashing backing track that’s quasi-punk. However, it’s an old-fashioned protest song in which, instead of singing, Bognanno shouts out her outrage over climate change, gun violence, and the torpedoing of Roe v. Wade. Musically, it’s probably the least artful track on Lucky for You. It conveys one raw emotion without nuance and ends with startling abruptness. Yet something about it—more than just her ranting delivery—delivers an unexpectedly heavy punch.

Maybe it’s that Bognanno serves notice on “All This Noise” that she’s not exclusively concerned with her private concerns and isn’t only morose about lost love. Like Chrissie Hynde, she’s also angry at the world outside: the world nearly all of us are powerless to change as it steamrolls our rights, hopes, safety, and desire to bring children into it and makes us bipolar and alcoholic. The effect is to draw us into screaming solidarity with her and get us excited about how the next Bully record—which will almost certainly be as hook-laden as Lucky for You—is going make music out of all this unhappiness.

RATING 7 / 10