One of the most damaging fabrications that’s peddled across North American culture is that optimism and positivity have a static manifestation. The notion that these states exist only in sunny weather or major chords forwards a tricky, idealized aesthetic that leaves little room to explore alternative ways of expressing an appreciation for brightness. Admissions of disappointment and darkness are more giving than their imagery suggests; most often, they’re striving for something better via a process of exorcism. It’s healthy and productive to cast out darkness, but if it’s shunned as darkness for darkness’ sake, it extinguishes the redemption hiding beneath.
Alicia Bognanno, who fronts Nashville punk band Bully, writes with a necessarily fluid understanding of optimism. Bully’s new record, ambiguously titled Losing, encourages and supports bringing the muck into the spotlight. Over slashing, screwball guitar dissonance and a fierce, elemental rhythm section, Bognanno’s voice oscillates between a softened, depressive low-register and a knock-down drag-out scream. They’re the sounds of someone scraping their knees on the bottom, then going 15 rounds to break free from it. It’s a record draped in darkness, with Bognanno stabbing through the ambivalent defeat, defiant and desirous of change.
The record’s lead single, the arresting, uncomfortable “Feel The Same,” strips the struggle down to the daily routine of trying to escape a breakdown: “Cut my hair/I feel the same/Masturbate/I feel the same,” Bognanno groans. Her honesty is discomforting, and that’s what makes it so relatable; we so rarely confront our discomfort, let alone work to correct it, and hearing it named in public offers rare community therapy. “I was in a really shitty place, and I think I just wanted to represent when you get into those negative head spaces,” Bognanno says of the song. “I feel like you can never really tell what causes you to be there and how long you’re gonna be there, and when you’re gonna be able to shake it and get back to a more optimistic view on life in general.”
Those sorts of bleak periods can be triggered by all manner of stimuli, but for Bognanno, returning to Nashville after a year and a half of tireless touring behind their 2015 debut Feels Like. Touring can strain physical and mental health, but the whiplash of stopping can produce difficulties that are just as depleting. “When you’re on the road, it’s a bit of a false sense of validation because you’re playing every night and you’re constantly getting this feedback from people who already like your music and paid to be there, and it’s a really good feeling,” she says. But finishing tour and resuming a local existence can induce a disjointed version of seasonal affective disorder.
“You have that constant creative outlet for any sort of negative energy that you have, you can kind of work through [it] onstage, and it’s this incredibly liberating feeling. You count on that every night. But when you get back in town, that sort of all just stops, and you’re just stationary and learning your place a little bit. It’s like, ‘Where do these feelings go now, cause I can’t just scream them out.’ I guess the answer would be into writing the songs for the second record.”
The stagnant drone of Nashville regularity wasn’t the only trigger. The dulled fury of “Could Be Wrong” addresses the familiar frustration of “watching somebody who’s achieving at such a quicker pace than you are.” That struggle is complex, though; it’s hard to temper celebration of someone’s accomplishments with the bitter truth that it’s where you’d like to be; as Bognanno puts it, it’s a mix of “having to be happy for them, but also being a little bit bummed out.” Bognanno latches onto projects and works insatiably to master them (while she once interned at Steve Albini’s esteemed Electric Studio in Chicago, she’s now recording and engineering her own records there), but it’s modern human nature to never be satisfied, and putting in the work without the corresponding advancement is demoralizing.
The confluence of professional and personal strains resulted in the numbing helplessness on Losing, but it also produced a raging rejection of that state. Bognanno pushes back with music, but she cites extracurriculars like physical activity as essential coping mechanisms. When Bully toured with Best Coast, Bognanno says Bethany Cosentino encouraged her to get moving. “I have to exercise,” she states plainly. “I feel like if I don’t, then all these endorphins built up, and I turn into this tight ball of negative energy. Sometimes I just literally have to go run, and it sounds so stupid, but it’s true.”
Just as there’s not one essential iteration of positivity, there’s no single, catch-all remedy for self-care. For Bognanno, running is a piece of a puzzle that includes writing, listening to podcasts, and roaring at the top of her lungs. Some might require more intensive regimens. It doesn’t matter what the strategy is; what matters is the desire to get better, whatever ‘better’ means and whatever it takes to get there. Bognanno admits that on the surface, the record tends to deal in negative terms, but the record itself is a step towards getting better. “I feel like a lot of times all the negative parts get highlighted or how much of a bummer it can be, but I think there’s a lot of positivity,” she says earnestly. It becomes easy to read her words as about Losing or about life in general. “It can seem really dark, but it’s not. It’s about rolling with the punches and overcoming those things. It’s shit everyone has to deal with, but they do deal with it and work it out and get to a better place. I think that’s important to keep in mind.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that as much as Bully and their records are stellar documents of a love for noisy, unkempt garage punk, the reason the band exists isn’t just for the good of the music; it’s for the good of the musicians. “I think if we were writing songs that didn’t make us feel like they were helping us deal with stuff or connect to people we don’t know, then I don’t know what we would do.”
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.