“Do you think they can see through our disguise?” Sunflower Bean sing on “Beat the Odds” from their new album, Headful of Sugar. The question is pertinent in a way the band may not have intended. Three albums in the New York City indie trio remain an attractive proposition, but they still struggle to establish a unique musical identity.
Granted, the struggle between style and substance must be especially difficult when your frontwoman not only looks like a model but actually is one. But after a very promising sophomore effort, Headful of Sugar swings the balance in favor of the former. With a couple of exceptions, listening to it is like biting into a hard, crunchy candy shell and finding there’s more of the same thing inside.
Twentytwo in Blue (2018), was made when Sunflower Bean’s members were 22 years old, and it was an often-poignant chronicle of the difficulty in coming to grips with growing up and leaving youth behind. Musically, it found them enriching their 1970s-inspired glam and heavy rock sounds with singer-songwriter craftsmanship. In terms of lyrics, Julia Cumming and company managed to incorporate the likes of Dylan Thomas paraphrases in a seamless, unpretentious fashion. Now, with Headful of Sugar, they are in their mid-20s and have graduated to, as they put it, “writ[ing] 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”.
Thankfully, the results are more fun than that sounds. That is partly because Sunflower Bean’s response to their existential questions includes taking a hedonistic/nihilistic, “screw it” approach. This approach comes across in the, erm, sugary jangle-pop of “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” and the retro club beats of “Post Love”. Where previously Cumming declared, “I do not go quietly into the night that calls me”, that is now precisely what she does—except for the quiet part, maybe. “In dreams, I could still be your lover,” she sings on “Post Love”, because “dogs will always fuck another”. It’s possible that setting such a jaded sentiment to music that would befit Ariana Grande is intentionally subversive. But Sunflower Bean haven’t earned the benefit of that doubt.
What does come across in sincere fashion on Headful of Sugar is mundanity. Too many songs ooze by with mid-tempos, fuzz bass, and snare drum hits that sound like whacking a full box of Mike & Ike. When the tempo is upped for a more grungy feel on “Baby Don’t Cry”, the result bears more than a little resemblance to Veruca Salt’s 1990s alternative hit “Seether”.
Nearly all the music on Headful of Sugar sounds like it was influenced by the type of music that once was placed under the broad umbrella of “alternative”. This is, of course, in keeping with current trends. To their credit, though, Sunflower Bean are doing it on their own terms, working with their regular producer in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jake Portrait, rather than a hired-gun hitmaker. This lends the album just the hint of sincerity it desperately needs. So, also, do tracks like the swooning, Cocteau Twins-inspired “Who Put You Up to This?” and romantically old-school “Stand By Me”.
The problem with Headful of Sugar isn’t that it’s bad. It’s that if a band is going to tell people one more time that, “Nothing in this life is really free”, they’d better have a profound, distinctive way of doing it, and Headful of Sugar doesn’t quite get there.