Sunflower Bean: Headful of Sugar

Sunflower Bean have already achieved greatness with “Twentytwo” (on their second album, 2018’s Twentytwo in Blue), an emotive, catchy song about being young, and trying not to live in fear: “do not go quietly into the night”.

2018 now consigned to the long and distant past, what about now? Sunflower Bean’s third, Headful of Sugar, is an album about “outsiders disillusioned with the modern world; they search for freedom and meaning in a culture that runs on the 24-hour news cycle, soulless laptop jobs, and dozens of brands of hard seltzer”. Co-vocalist and guitarist Nick Kivlen advises that “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.”

Kivlen has also stated that the band wanted to write about “the lived experience of late capitalism”. This may be an ambitious aim, but a song like “Roll The Dice” is an achiever. The song was inspired by the 2021 Gamestop saga, in which small investors mobilized by the Reddit page r/wallstreetbets bought stock in the struggling video game retailer GameStop and sent the stock price upwards, influencing institutional and hedge fund investors who had bet against the company to back out (known as “a short squeeze” – something we all like from time to time). The track is noisy and rebellious in the spirit of those attempting to beat “the casino of American capitalism”: it’s the sound of a chaotic game and  those emptying bank accounts “chasing a real living”, in the knowledge that “win big, win lose, that’s just how the game works/in this city money talks, that’s just how the world works “. The thumping and dark “Beat The Odds”, which sounds something like peak Depeche Mode, is also concerned with a lust for success, in a misunderstood, evil city.

Another key song on the album is the synth-laden “In Flight”, written by Kivlen upon returning to his hometown after a tour and feeling like the last young person left living there. Almost an update of Springsteen’s “death trap” town of “Born to Run”, the song decries that “nothing ever changes in this town/the people die or they move out/everyone but me”. Springsteen dreams of escape on a motorbike or car; Kivlen has to remind himself (backed up by vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming) not that death is long but that “life is short and the cliffs are high/I don’t have to close my eyes/to see us in flight.”

A feeling of restlessness is also expressed on “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes”, a poppy and upbeat track despite the stated circumstances – “locked out of my house/get a terrible tattoo/scroll through my contacts call every number besides you/meet a stranger at a bar and spill my secrets for all time/wasted all my money on Tecate and some limes”. There’s a wilful optimism in the face of adversity (and a reference to The Cure’s “Friday I’m in love”) with the declaration that “on Friday I don’t care what’s the future brings/on Sunday I stay home and close my blinds”.

The more personal songs tend to deal with love and heartbreak, but with a modern twist; the songs are firmly placed in a bright, shiny world with backing and production to match. Drummer Olive Faber not only played on the album (whose playing significantly intensifies the grief and tears of “Otherside”), but also engineered – the record was largely recorded “at home”. Cumming and Kivlen split the lead vocals between them across the album, and this provides an element of uncertainty about what’s going to come next.

Five of the songs were written by the band with the album’s producer Jacob Portrait (Blouse/Wampire), and “Stand By Me” with Portrait, Suzy Shinn and Shamir. The track is miles away from the soul song of the same name made famous by Ben E. King, instead a complex pop song (with additional vocals by Shamir) considering the power dynamic of a relationship, with Cumming warning that she’s not someone who just “sits back and takes it”.

This is an album with a contemporary but classic sound.  Sunflower Bean have their own thing going on, but if comparisons are necessary “Who Put You Up To This?” is reminiscent of indie favourites Rilo Kiley. “Post Love” is a postmodern disco track, “post heart, post break/post love, post hate/backtrack, erase/can’t shake your taste”. The thumping pop of “Baby Don’t Cry” portrays the nostalgic tone of radio as taking the listener to an imaginary life and past, but television as a corporate stooge. The ultra-modern “Feel Somebody” is a full-on pulsating life of disposable, replaceable lovers.

The title song is dense and ambiguous, a head full of sugar full of fizz, but fast pleasures seem to be taking a downward turn, with Kivlen admitting “I had a little too much fun today”. Accountants and lawyers may claim fun is overrated, but Sunflower Bean’s sophisticated worldview means that they don’t make such easy statements. As a band willing to deal with complexity, they have made a consistently engaging and interesting album, and ensured their future is wide-open.

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Label: Lucky Number
Release Date: 06 MAY 2022