If I don’t wanna listen
Then I’m not going to
If you didn’t wanna listen
Then I wouldn’t make you
I almost didn’t go. It would’ve been so easy to give in the way I usually did, to lie around trying to outsleep cats (don’t do it, you’ll just hurt yourself and the cats will mock you), to think/not think about what I did/didn’t do and why I couldn’t do more or be more or have more self-control/success/positive experiences.
Just stay home, you might not get in, it’ll be really crowded and what’s the point anyway? You already have the record, that should be enough. You won’t be able to write about a live set without sounding like a drooling fanboy. You probably won’t even be able to handle standing in the same room with them.
I’d wanted to go right up until the day of, when I woke up feeling the way I normally do: like I’d slept for about an hour on a prison cot in the desert. It’s the apnea, or the narcolepsy, or the depression, or the antidepressants, or the tinnitus I just noticed the other day. Shit. I feel okay, overall, I mean way better than I used to, but I don’t sleep anymore. I guess that’s fine.
That day, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to get dressed. I didn’t want to eat, and I didn’t want to go to see Bully play at Grimey’s—one of the most iconic independent record stores on the planet. I thought about this and got mad at myself for slouching out: It’s free, for rap’s sake! Just get up and put on your new A$AP Rocky shirt and go to the damn show.
I’d like to say that it worked and I got myself up using only willpower and bootstraps, but you can’t take a swing at depression. It’ll eat you alive. So I gave up and decided not to think about it, to go downstairs and have a snack and see what happened.
Somewhere between coffee and lunch a switch flipped, and I don’t know where or how. That’s always the frustrating part. I didn’t do anything differently but some combination of environment and brain chemistry and however many dad jokes were texted to me that morning pulled me out of the fog and suddenly there I was, dressed and ready to go, ready to participate in life and nervously share a moment with a bunch of strangers so I could write about it for you.
Let’s be honest: music reviews are dead. None of you are reading this to see if you might enjoy Bully’s music when you can pull it up in an instant on Bandcamp or Spotify or YouTube and decide for yourself. Either you care or you don’t. And if you don’t care, it’s okay if you want to stop reading now, or if you’ve already stopped. It really is.
I question everything
My focus my figure my sexuality
And how much it matters or why it would mean anything
You can listen to a song like “Trying”—maybe the best song on Feels Like, or maybe just my favorite at the moment—and wonder where it’s been all your life, or how someone else could tap into such a primal feeling you’ve kept hidden for so long. You thought it was a secret, that no one else felt that way but we all do, every single one of us, it’s all part of what we’re still trying to understand about humanity: some intangible concept that dictates everything we’ve done for two million years, indelible and so resistant to being defined or categorized or predicted.
“Trying” is also a nurturing reminder of all the times I’ve burst into my own spontaneous inner mantra of I’m trying to hide from my mind I am trying all the time and when it happens now I stop for a minute and try to remember how I got there and what it felt like and this song feels like that too. It’s strange how such a specific, ethereal feeling could travel from body to brain to music to brain to body while remaining completely intact. We must be more powerful than we think.
If you’ve ever felt this confused
It’s magic how you make me feel like trash
I got to Grimey’s early, not that I planned it. I’d just fallen out of my spiral in that particular way. There was the van and there was the band unloading amps and drums. It was such a familiar sight that I almost reached in and grabbed something to carry inside and I’m sure they wouldn’t have cared but who does that? I was already overthinking and I needed to keep moving.
Inside was the old familiar room full of wooden racks of CDs and records, meticulously organized as they always were. Three or four girls, probably around fourteen, waited together in the middle of the room. Nobody else was around. I scoped out a good spot, where I thought I might be able to get a good photo, and started looking at the records near there.
Rap. Excellent. Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Beatnuts, Hail Mary Mallon. The last of these is quintessential indie record store fare: 1) decidedly not mainstream, 2) both a side project AND a supergroup, and 3) really, really good.
That whole thought process killed a few minutes as some more people came in. It started to get a little tight and I worried about whether I should move, if I’d be in everyone’s way. Where I stood turned out to be a major thoroughfare both for fans trying to settle in and for the store workers trying to clear more space for the crowd. I shift over temporarily.
I’m usually a mess on the inside. My perception is overclocked and my curiosity is terminal. I’ve trained myself to notice things. I don’t consider any of this to be a detriment necessarily, but it certainly has an effect on how I process the world, and when it gets heavy I need to check out somehow. Standing there in a small room with almost too many people, I decided to look up at all the records displayed at eye level and above. There were shelves all around the store and all the wall space was taken up by records or posters or bumper stickers. There was plenty to look at, even if I felt self-conscious doing so. There was nothing else I could do at this point.
Getting lost in my own neuroses is probably the kind of temperament, to put it kindly, that endears me to bands like Bully: music that is willing to confront the real without any sidestepping or pandering or euphemisms, just a full-on gravel-throated snarlfaced attempt to reclaim some of this bullshit madness for ourselves, to carve out enough breathing room to keep from giving up completely, to gather strength for the next offensive. It’s an attitude that I’m unable to even remotely understand and one I would desperately love to have.
The band set up very quickly and quietly, and after a brief soundcheck they went to the green room, which was just another part of the same tiny room we were all in, and somebody put some music on and we all stood there and tried to kill time. Most people chatted to the friends they came with.
I was alone mainly because I didn’t know how else to be there. In my circle, going to shows has gone out of style, or maybe our lives have just spun too far out of sync.
Don’t you want to be a part of something bigger
Something strange is catching up to you
A Nashville audience demands blood. They want more than any artist can give because they know how much goddamn talent there is around here and if a particular one doesn’t suit their fancy then they’ll just yawn and stare at the wall and sip the trash beer of the week while they think about anything other than what’s happening on stage. They’ll commit murder by silence 20 times a night with huge grins masking the shitpiles of contempt behind their eyes.
Nashville’s strange that way. The rock bands prowl the gutters, fighting for a dismal writeup or, if they’re lucky, an emotionally detached dissection of the elements of their music that manages somehow to be both incredibly verbose and completely devoid of meaning. Backstage or offstage, everyone wants to hang and no one wants to admit that all our garbage humblebragging serves no purpose other than self-affirmation at the cost of someone else’s time. We could just stay home and talk to ourselves.
Anyway, it’s brutal. No one gets out alive. We’ve devised the perfect band-eating machine and we’ve been feeding it for so long now, we’re not about to stop, no way.
In the middle of all of this, here — even in Nashville’s bleak hellscape — sometimes something great happens. I’m not interested in mythologizing Bully, not when the truth is so impressive. Bully shot up like a nervous rocket in a field full of anti-aircraft guns that is the Nashville scene — critic snipers up on the walls, bands in foxholes, college interns running recon — and nobody moved or fired because we all knew they were gonna make it and you could see in everyone’s eyes the glimmer of an idea that maybe we shouldn’t shoot everything out of the sky all the goddamn time.
I used to be a SHARK
I have to think of a way to tell you about this record that’s better than the ways I tell you about other records, because this record is better than other records.
Artists who can engineer and produce their own recordings are rare and always worth listening to because they know how to be adventurous. The reason they know this is because they’ve spent a lot of time engineering and producing for other people. They’ve worked on countless sessions where the producer or the artist made them do something bland or ineffective and every time that happens they make a mental note to never do this again if they can help it and so when it comes time to record their own music they know exactly what to do. They know how to avoid the safe mistakes everyone else is so hellbent on making. I’m convinced this makes them better songwriters as well, because it encourages an avoidance of easy rhymes and pointless turnarounds in favor of more interesting choices.
It’s clear that Alicia Bognanno understands all of this, that her songwriting and arrangements and production are all working together to create something more than just a collection of songs. There’s a sense of unity in the songwriting and the arrangements and the track order and even the title – something so deceptively innocent, so vague and nondescript that it seems like an oversight or a capitulation. The significance was lost on me until I heard the moment when “feels like” comes up in context, when Bognanno appropriately roars it like a fucking lion, over and over. It’s a great reveal.
I’ll never sleep with you again
I don’t want you broke over me
You could say Bully sounds like Hole or Pixies or The Strokes and you wouldn’t be wrong but you’ve missed the point. These comparisons get less meaningful as time goes on and artists make more and more music that will inevitably sound like something that’s been done before. So you might notice the fuzzy guitars, or the tight production, or the way Bognanno moves from a sweet lilt to a furious howl in a split second, and it might remind you of Kurt Cobain or Kim Deal or Jemina Pearl but who cares other than your own brain? Who’s giving you a gold star for putting that together? It reduces talent to something you can dismiss by chucking it into a box full of other things that sound like it. How many vocalists can do what you hear on this record? Who can croon and harmonize and shriek and scream and make it all sound natural? It’s a rare combination of vocal skill and writing skill and engineering skill and it just so happens to reside within the same individual, someone who prefers to use familiarity as an anchor rather than a crutch, as a means to an end and the end was a room and the room
I would never make you feel
The way some people make me feel
It was packed. It was hot. We had just enough personal space to go around. I was feeling nervous because I was up front and I’m tall and there were some very short people behind me and I thought they might be pissed and maybe I should have offered to move but I couldn’t wrap my head around any single course of action so I stayed still and let my brain rattle until the band started, and the noise was too great to ignore and I could finally forget about myself and the people and the heat and the space and not think but just exist and enjoy a temporary loss of feeling, a dip into the void. Sensory deprivation via sensory overload. Sometimes bliss is just a lack of aggravation.
Near the end of the set, when the noise and the tension had maxed out, Bully launched into the song that contains the lyric that “feels like” is drawn from, and I was excited to hear it shouted directly at me, ten feet from my face. When that particular moment came — the moment that Alicia Bognanno knew was the climax of the album and the show because she’d designed it that way — she unleashed a guttural, furious H-bomb from somewhere within her.
…and it wiped out the entire room, we were all dead and gone, completely annihilated.
It was quite possibly the most earnest thing I’d ever heard, and nothing else I could say about it would matter very much.