Chumbawumba’s massive 1997 one hit wonder ‘Tubthumping’ isn’t an influence you see cited much in 2020, especially not by American artists. And yet, according to Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, that quintessential soundtrack to ‘90s Britain was key in the writing of one of the best tracks on her third album, ‘SUGAREGG’.
Once you’re armed with that knowledge, the impact of the Burnley band’s chart-topper on ‘Where To Start’ is clear. It’s present in the way Bognanno mixes her trademark rasped cries with vocals that are softer and sweeter, or in the Britpop-worthy jangly guitars and the insistent, pounding drum beats. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear her yell the line, “I was mad for it right from the start” like a true student of Britpop.
‘SUGAREGG’ finds Bognanno letting go and allowing herself to have fun – something ‘Where To Start’ is a prime example of. Since Bully emerged in 2014, her other job as an engineer was thrust front and centre of the band’s narrative and the musician has said she felt like she had to prove what she was capable of. The 2015 debut ‘Feels Like’ and its 2017 follow up ‘Losing’ both showcased an expert at her craft but it’s this third record, on which Bognanno loosened her grip on the reins and let others in to her recording process, that feels like Bully’s best effort yet.
Just because this album was written in a more liberated, happier headspace (it’s also the first record Bognanno has created since finding the right treatment for her bipolar 2 disorder) doesn’t mean it doesn’t tackle big issues. On ‘Every Tradition’, the singer and guitarist takes on societal norms placed on women. “It’s like pressure to have a baby/When I don’t want one in my body,” she spits over bright, forceful guitars. “You say my mind is gonna change one day/But I felt this way forever.” Later, she offers some advice for those who make it their business to judge her life choices: “If you’re gonna shame me/Turn around, bite your tongue til it bleeds.”
She returns to similar subject matter on the stormy ‘Not Ashamed’, discordant riffs cutting through a tumbling tornado of drums. ‘Hours And Hours’ – one of the album’s most creative songs – details her relationship with her mother. Its verses are gloomy but quiet, before a wall of guitars hit for a chorus that sees Bognanno declare: “But I’m not angry anymore/I’m not holding onto that.”
‘Feels Like’ and Bully’s preceding singles always packed a pop hook with their blistering rock and that’s an approach that shines again on this album. ‘Like Fire’ is a vibrant rush of sugary guitar melodies and its creator’s drawled, half-hushed delivery, which easily gets lodged in your brain. ‘Let You’, meanwhile, is the record’s biggest, beaming pop moment given an abrasive edge by Bognanno’s hoarse voice.
Listening to ‘SUGAREGG’ feels like you are witness to something effortless and easy, thanks to the hodgepodge of candid studio conversations left in between songs. ‘Every Tradition’ opens with a recording of Bognanno asking “Shall we?” as if she’s asking you to dance. The punchy ‘Stuck In Your Head’ begins with a seemingly impromptu bit of ad libbed singing from her. It all adds to the feeling that the musician has achieved what she wanted – freeing herself from anxieties about her work and doing whatever she pleased.
Doing what you want doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always going to get things spot on. ‘You’ doesn’t stand out from some of the album’s more dynamic moments, a fairly standard chugging piece of rock that feels monotonous and unexceptional. That song aside, though, ‘SUGAREGG’ shows a musician at the top of their game, unafraid to take themselves a little less seriously than before.