Losing is a record marked by loss within the life of Bully mastermind Alicia Bognanno, but it’s not that loss, however multifaceted, that defines the record. Instead, it’s how Bognanno processed that loss and let it inform both the music and lyrics that make up the Nashville rock band’s second album, in two distinct ways. Lyrical, she takes the contemplative path some follow after loss that can offer some much-needed healing, while musically, the dynamic frontwoman drifts towards the hasty path, one that could lead to a misstep or an improvement, or even both as is the case with Losing.
The album’s 12 tracks expand on Bognanno’s trenchant and candid use of words as the majority of songs examine the fallout from her breakup with Stewart Copeland, Bully’s former drummer. At times, she’s indifferent (“It’s the New Year/ And you made it clear/ That you don’t want to see me/ I don’t get it/ But I don’t care”), while elsewhere, she’s more open in her examination (“You said I’m running/ That I don’t care/ I’ll admit it/ I get anxious, too”). Flipping between caustic attacks and remorseful admissions, her strength as a lyricist comes out, moving past the fiery empowerment of 2015’s Feels Like into inspiring vulnerability that feels likewise remarkable, if not a touch more stirring. It’s something you’d expect from a breakup record by an exceptional musician, though it is worth noting that Losing is no breakup record. Far from it.
While the relationship loss informs much of Losing, Bognanno also address some of society’s recent losses throughout the record. On “Seeing It”, she addresses the uneasy role of women in today’s world with a tense song that contains an explosive release. It brings out some of her finer lyrical moments (“Such a blurring place to be/ Stuck in your own body”), moments that are far removed from any interaction with an ex-lover and speak to losses on both a personal and worldly level. Bognanno is at her best blending the two losses into one idea, like on “Kills to Be Resistant”, with lyrics that seem equally pointed at society’s recent regression and her failed relationship, in an ambiguous, yet rousing message that clearly shows off her lyrical growth.
Musically, Losing doubles down on Bognanno’s voice, with recordings that push her layered vocals to the forefront of each song while the rhythm section is left on the ground as collateral damage. Whereas Feels Like dropped the listener straight into the studio with raw, live-to-tape recordings that felt unbridled from all ends, Losing drops you in a booth with Bognanno meticulously tinkering at the board, trying to perfectly emphasize her lyrical ideas and vocal growth. Both of these aspects truly dazzle in the final product, though one can’t help wondering why cymbal crashes in a frantic chorus feel more like redundant commas in a concluding statement, rather than the definitive period or exclamation points needed to solidify your argument.
The benefit to this approach is that we can appreciate the full range of Bognanno’s voice, instead of just praising the cathartic bellow that became her trademark. That bellow is featured prominently on Losing, perhaps best utilized on the chugging dissonance of “Seeing It”, though it’s clear her focus has shifted to serenading harmonies and moments that highlight the space between. It’s something Bully has used sparingly in the past, more as background decorations in an elaborate chase scene like on their debut single, “Milkman”. There isn’t much time to notice them in the first or second listen, but eventually, their fleeting beauty is felt and appreciated. Losing adjusts the pace of the chase while adding in more decorations, some that move from the background to forefront and help flip the beauty from fleeting to persistent.
As new ideas move to the forefront, others move back, out of view and nearly out of mind. Thankfully, the guitar’s place in Bully’s pecking order seems safe, even if its ideas aren’t quite as blistering or bustling as on earlier releases. The drums and bass weren’t so lucky, becoming a faint pulse at times in the music, buried underneath the impactful lyrics, vocal agility, and fuzzy guitar musings. You might excuse this if the rhythm section was generic filler, but dig deep and you’ll find plenty of inspired parts and counter-melodies buried underneath the songs’ many layers. Some moments are just too good to bury, though, and Bognanno dutifully moves these from the periphery to the forefront like the dancing bass line that carries a verse in “Kills to Be Resistant” and the clinking cymbals of “Either Way” that serve as the fuse to the powder keg climax. Both brief moments, it seems Bully found its new source of fleeting beauty for Losing, forgetting the structural integrity that the rhythm section so deftly supplies in rock music.
Ultimately, it is Bognanno’s willingness to leave aspects of Bully’s venerated sound behind as she flourishes that makes Losing an uneasy offering. Lyrically, she’s never been better. Vocally, never more dynamic. Those two alone should make for another breakout record, but unfortunately, the core of the band is left faint, robbing the music of the pulsating energy and raw sensation that initially made Bully such a head-turner. Thankfully, Bognanno’s voice and words are more than enough to carry a record, but as they continue to rise, careful attention needs to be paid to the foundation before it all comes crumbling down.
Essential Tracks: “Feel the Same”, “Kills to Be Resistant”, and “Focused”