May 03, 2022
By Andy Von Pip
When it came to following up their critically acclaimed second album Twentytwo In Blue, New York trio Sunflower Bean—comprised of vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming (she/her), guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen (he/him), and drummer Olive Faber (she/they)—went back to basics. After the global pandemic curtailed their seemingly insatiable appetite for gigging the threesome turned a negative into a positive and decided to record their third album, Headful of Sugar, predominantly at their home studio. Getting back to basics when viewed through the lens of a political ideology is usually a byword for fiscal austerity, cutbacks, and for “making do.” However, it means something completely different when viewed through Sunflower Beans’ creative lens. Getting back to basics afforded the band the space to innovate, the chance to take complete control of their creative narrative to follow their instincts without the external pressure of a studio clock ticking down. As drummer Olive Faber explained, “you’re losing money as soon as you step into it [a recording studio]. It’s shitty to record and make music like that sometimes.”
After recalibrating to a world in lockdown and their place in it, the band hunkered down together and set about the business of crafting their finest work to date. They sound reinvigorated, as they expertly navigate a variety of sonic terrains bending them to their will with results that are nothing short of spectacular. There is light, there is shade, and there is hope amidst the occasional atmosphere of dystopian darkness as the band explore and expand the possibilities of rock and pop. Guitarist and co-vocalist Nick Kilven explains, “We wanted to write about the lived experience of late capitalism, how it feels every day, the mundanity of not knowing where every construct is supposed to ultimately lead you. The message is in the title: this is about fast pleasures, the sugar of life, the joy that comes with letting go of everything you thought mattered.” Headful of Sugar examines that bold sense of letting go, of deconstructing and smashing other people’s expectations of who you are, or as Cumming says, “Why not make what you want to make on your own terms? Why not make a record that makes you want to dance? Why not make a record that makes you want to scream?”
At its fiercely beating heart, Headful of Sugar is a vibrant modern neo-psychedelic pop record which often melds a Prince-style pop and funk sensibility, with genius pop hooks and gritty dystopian beats. The album clocks in at just 36 minutes, but it’s a lean mean groove machine, meaning there’s absolutely no excess fat here, with every track an absolute prime cut.
The album unfurls with the beautiful “Who Put You Up To This?” with a chorus in which Julia Cumming’s sublime cascading heaven sent vocals have an almost Elizabeth Fraser quality. Kivlen confronts small-town syndrome on the beautiful Michael Stipe meets Talk Talk sounding “In Flight,” whilst on the propulsive “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” Cumming’s ice cream sweet vocals swirl around an addictive effervescent mix of throbbing bass lines and driving urgent beats. Ostensibly it is an upbeat sounding track but draws its inspiration from darker experiences, motivated by Cumming’s impulsive side, which she admits has led to her “best choices on stage but my worst choices in life.”
“Roll the Dice” begins with Cumming’s distorted vocal warning, “Nothing in this life is really free,” and mixes melody and dissonance, melding towering walls of feedback, static and squalling guitars. “Post Love” sounds like peak dancefloor Madonna, whilst the driving lead single “Baby Don’t Cry,” released in 2021, has already begun to take on the air of an underground cult classic. “Otherside” provides the one moment of calm as Cumming delivers a performance of soul-baring beauty, whilst the pummelling Goth(am) rock anthem “Beat the Odds” isn’t a million miles away from Depeche Mode in their pomp.
Beneath the soaring tsunami of hook-laden melodies, sublime harmonies, and innovative production techniques, Headful of Sugar is the distillation of a band becoming exactly who they are supposed to be. Despite the dark times we live in there is a sense of the band inviting us to join them in looking to the future with more hope than trepidation. It’s a passionately fearless and honest body of work, one that pays no heed to the prevailing and increasingly regressive backward looking indie rock trends. Indeed this is undoubtedly a forward-thinking album full of vibrancy and excitement, one that engages the head and the heart from a band who have always strived to do both, and it succeeds on pretty much every level. (www.sunflowerbeanband.com)
Author rating: 8.5/10
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