Back in 2017, Minneapolis-raised artist Jeremy Nutzman emerged with his debut project, NCOD, released under the moniker Velvet Negroni. It was a sprawling and strangely beautiful sound, with vast electronics teeming with an ambitious experimentalism and forthright vocals, all unconfined by any specific genre. This sound was something which, at the time, Nutzman credited to his unusual upbringing: a Black kid adopted by a strict white evangelical Christian family, he’d had no access to secular music through his youth, and so his reference points to popular genres came much later. “I grew up with no freedom”, he says now, though as the years go on he is less and less certain on what impact his childhood has had on the work that he makes today.
In any case, his unique soundscapes brought him to big audiences and bigger fans: sampled by Kanye West, touring with Bon Iver, and signed to 4AD for the release of his acclaimed 2019 album Neon Brown. A few years later, he is gearing up for the release of his propulsive new album Bulli, a record that trembles with a slick and polished new intensity following a relatively tumultuous life period. “I started using drugs again in a negative manner,” he says, “And felt like I lost all my friends or their respect. And then there was Covid, and I was at home, then my CashApp got hacked. And because of that I got paranoid as fuck for a long time and stayed in the house.”
Rather than the new album being insular and lonely, it’s the result of more outward-looking collaboration. It was during this time that he reconnected with Hunter Morley, a friend from a previous band project called Pony Bwoy. The pair moved in together and started making music together again: “I was so grateful to have found a producer who was willing to work with me, it felt like,” he laughs, “Cos I just didn’t feel good about myself at all.” The record is, Nutzman concedes, not the result of feeling compelled to create something, but a worry that he should be producing new material because it’s his job. “It was really stress-based, my viewpoint on it then wasn’t what it is now.”
Songs were coming together, but this was when further disaster struck: a fire in the house. “I was in my bedroom watching TV and the TV shut off and I couldn’t figure out why, and there was such a racket going on outside. Then I left my room and the kitchen was engulfed in the thickest orange flames and black smoke, and it was so hot.” They managed to grab their laptops, but there was no real time for the pair to rescue anything else. “It’s funny because I always imagined what it would be like to be in that situation, thinking I would be able to think on my feet, but that’s not really an option. I ran outside into the snow in my socks, and watched my house burn while we waited for the firefighters.” Every piece of equipment in the studio was caked in smoke damage, and as the weather began to improve in the coming weeks they took it all outside and cleaned everything from the inside out until it worked again. Nutzman started sleeping in a studio, while Morley stayed in a friend’s house, and the pair continued working on the record. But obviously, the mindset had all changed. “It sort of distorted everything,” he says of the fire, “Looking back, it had to have.”
The result is an album on which Nutzman says he cannot fully hear himself – which makes sense, given the heavy circumstances in which he was creating it. Though, as he explains: “However it got filtered, the album is still me.” Bulli glimmers with an almost-uncomfortable pop sheen, with lead single ‘Sinker’ whirring with a strutting positivity and rich instrumentation that is at stark odds with the lyrics (“Wake up and do pills like I’m dying of cancer”). Touchstones of leftfield electronic sounds meld with nods to alternative rock, power pop, even tender R&B and deft hip-hop. Songs like the drolly titled ‘Pop Song 2’ judder and billow with piano and flickering percussion, all topped with his distinctive vocals, contrasting with intense, jarring bursts of sound as on ‘Bell Clapper’, recalling his more Dadaist roots. It’s a record that holds something anticipatory, at times almost frantic and manic, occasionally even sexy and breathy (as on the lithe bass of ‘Shiny’).