A tribute to the agony + ecstasy of modern life in the USA
Andrew Belt
11:38 4th May 2022

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Headful of Sugar swings from beautifully-sung pop music to seedy hard rock that conveys heartbroken introspection at points and carefree hedonism elsewhere yet, as a collection of songs, the third album from New York band Sunflower Bean gels impressively. 

The sharp twists in moods and feelings on love faintly bring to mind Stevie Wonder’s classic Talking Book album, notable for its stark contrasts between songs, being madly in love on one and lamenting love’s passing on the next. 

Julia Cumming is the driving force of the album, her tender vocals calling to mind Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell and Gwen Stefani, with powerful bass lines reminiscent of Royal Blood and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Nick Kivlen is a great support, inventively generating recurring guitar solos as recognisable chorus accompaniments and taking centre stage to good effect on two of the standout tracks. Olive Faber’s drumming performance is an ode to subtlety, providing a platform for the co-vocalists to tell their stories. 

Lyrically, Headful of Sugar pays tribute to the agony and ecstasy of modern life in the USA. As Nick Kivlen puts it: “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.” 

The album begins with ‘Who Put You Up to This?’ with Cumming’s smooth vocals celebrating a new beginning over a groovy bass line and Kivlek’s swirling guitar solos. ‘In Flight’ follows with Kivlek chronicling feeling like the last young person left in his hometown after returning from a tour, with the verses delving into this depressing vein of thought with an uplifting chorus which seems to verge on acceptance: “Life is short, and the cliffs are high, I don’t have to close my eyes, to see us in flight.” 

Momentum stalls a little on third track ‘Otherside’ with Cumming’s poetic lyrics delivered in a style similar to HAIM. Not given much to go off musically, it may feel better suited to a shorter interlude than a three-minute song. ‘Roll the Dice’ breaks this short lull with its garage rock, seeing Cumming and Kivlek chant repetitively about wanting to win, with the inspiration for the track coming from a true story of outcasts beating the stock market. 

The title track is a sleazy slice of psych-rock with Kivlek’s lyrics such as "I’ve got a headful of sugar, wanna make your heart beat faster" and "babe, I wanna feed your hunger" accompanied by his short recurring guitar solos. Latest single ‘I Don’t Have Control Sometimes’ is an Eastern-influenced party track which could be easily-slotted into Gorillaz’s discography with its upbeat pop tempo the foundation for Cumming’s most Stefani-like performance as the vocalist revels in the possibility of being reckless. 

‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Post Love’ also lean into pop with the former seeing Cumming challenge her lover to commit to their relationship and the latter a lament to failed love featuring strong vocals from Cumming and a dance/electronic outro. 

Having seemingly misplaced their guitars in this middle section, Cumming more than makes up for it on the final three tracks, starting with the incredibly catchy ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ – a perfect pop song carried along by a groovy bass line. Cumming’s killer riff on ‘Beat the Odds’ lays the platform for Kivlen to add powerful, Nick Cave-like vocals as he puffs his chest out and proclaims that he will go the extra mile to be successful in this dog-eat-dog world. Psychedelic reverb introduces album closer ‘Feel Somebody’ which sees Cumming repeat "yeah" over yet more powerful bass as its abrupt ending leaves you yearning for more just as the rockier side of the band hits its stride. 

Three albums in, and though the garage rock beginnings of Sunflower Bean remain, Headful of Sugar demonstrates the band are not afraid to flit between genres and evolve into an ever more fascinating proposition deserving of mainstream consideration. 

Headful of Sugar arrives 6 May via Lucky Number.

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Photo: Press