with Good Dog Nigel and Work Wear
Headful of Sugar
The agony and ecstasy of contemporary American life fuels Sunflower Bean’s third album, a psychedelic headrush designed to be played loud, windows down. Headful of Sugar is about outsiders disillusioned with the modern world; they search for freedom and meaning in a culture that runs on the 24-hour newscycle, soulless laptop jobs, and dozens of brands of hard seltzer. In spite of their alienation, these misfits refuse to be beaten down, buoyed by the relief found in interpersonal relationships that counteract the daily barrage of cheap entertainment and convenience. “We wanted to write about the lived experience of late capitalism, how it feels everyday, the mundanity of not knowing where every construct is supposed to ultimately lead you,” Nick Kivlen says. “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.”
If their acclaimed sophomore LP, Twentytwo in Blue, was a self-described “ode to the fleeting innocence of youth,” then Headful of Sugar shoves the listener into a new, dangerous world, one that is less safe but also less suffocating. “Tomorrow is not promised, no tour is promised, no popularity is promised, no health or money is promised,” bassist/vocalist Julia 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?”
This ethos offered Sunflower Bean a freedom they hadn’t experienced before. They came up as teenagers in a New York music scene oversaturated by indie and always felt like their music, designated firmly in the category of “rock,” didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the city’s output. Nevertheless, they amassed a following rivaled by few of their contemporaries, made up of young people staring down a terrifying future and finding camaraderie in the eclectic rock ‘n’ roll aesthetics championed on Sunflower Bean’s 2016 debut, Human Ceremony. Since the success of Twentytwo in Blue, which debuted on the UK Top 40, the band has toured extensively with artists as disparate as Beck, Cage the Elephant, Interpol, Courtney Barnett, The Pixies, The Kills, DIIV, Courtney Barnett, and Wolf Alice in addition to playing major festivals like Glastonbury, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Reading & Leeds, and more. Most recently, Cumming was a featured vocalist on Yves Tumor’s critically-acclaimed Heaven to a Tortured Mind.
While Sunflower Bean have cited both contemporary and classic influences in the past, they didn’t look to the rock canon for inspiration for this new album.”We worked quickly and passionately in primary colors, following only our instinct of what inspired us in the moment, says Kivlen. “We weren’t precious about anything, there was a gleeful anarchy.” Recording largely at home allowed drummer Olive Faber to step into the role of engineer for the first time, offering Sunflower Bean a sense of solitude and safety that a traditional studio environment can’t. “We didn’t have to rely on anyone outside of the band and our producer, Jake Portrait, to get Headful of Sugar made,” Faber says. “Self-sufficiency helped us tell the story we wanted to tell.”
Headful of Sugar opens with a taut groove and a question, “Who Put You Up to This?” It’s a kiss-off to a former lover, maybe, but also a former self. “In another life I was a bitch/ In another life I was your bitch/ Here’s how it turned out,” Cumming sings, her voice alternating between the gritty and the divine, drawing comparisons to contemporary iconoclasts like St. Vincent. “Who Put You Up to This?” finds freedom in a fraught predicament, her sense of self fully divorced from the circumstances she finds herself in. “It’s about getting away without running away,” Cumming says. The sentiment resurfaces on “In Flight,” a song Kivlen wrote upon returning to his hometown after a long tour and feeling like the last young person left living there. “Nothing ever changes in this town/ The people die or they move out/ Everyone but me,” he laments, before Cumming joins in on the refrain. “Life is short and the cliffs are high/ I don’t have to close my eyes/ To see us in flight.”
These songs aren’t always autobiographical, and in co-writing, the members of Sunflower Bean seek to tap into alter-egos who resonate with the listener, like archetypes in a film. Nevertheless, the songs speak to members as individuals, too. For Faber, who recently came out as transgender, the album offers up a sense of promise that a different kind of life is possible. “Even though Julia and Nick handle the lyrics, these songs speak to my experiences as a trans person. I relate to the sense of willfulness I hear in them, this urge to roll the dice and let yourself make huge life changes in pursuit of happiness,” she says.
The song to which Faber refers, “Roll the Dice,” is the loudest and most immediate on the album, a mask-off indictment of the so-called American Dream. Written in response to the Gamestop debacle, when a generation of precarious basement dwellers bet their life savings trying to beat the casino of American capitalism, and in doing so, showed how untethered the stock market is to actual reality. Careening feedback and a spry piano part crash through a static wall of sound at the hellish climax as Cumming and Kivlen chant, “I just wanna win win win win win win win win.”
From the chaos of experience, new possibilities emerge, possibilities that might have seemed untenable in a more stable past. On “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes,” Cumming revels in a period of recklessness and instability that brought her to the breaking point that made this new album such a force. But there’s no darkness to mine here – “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” is a jangly, bright pop song reminiscent of The Cure, confident in its refusal to be apologetic. “I don’t care what tomorrow thinks/ Today I’m totally mine,” Cumming sings, her scintillating vocals communicating a witticism and self-awareness that swallows any suffering beneath.
That assertion, “I don’t care what tomorrow thinks,” aptly distills the uninhibited mood of Headful of Sugar, an album that seeks to answer the question, “What do we lose as individuals if we have no faith in the future?” And, conversely, “What might we gain?”
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