Despite what many would have you believe, variety and cohesiveness are not mutually exclusive ideas in music. An artist could create a sonically varied album and still tie it together with certain thematic elements. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off convincingly, but it’s possible. Credit, then, should go to Sunflower Bean for trying to be ambitious with Human Ceremony, but its ambition seems to rise from confusion. Even after repeated listens, it’s difficult to get an impression of just what kind of band Sunflower Bean want to be; Human Ceremony sees them trying on many different hats, and unfortunately, none of them fit.
Some would say that Sunflower Bean are “students” of different genres, but “fans” would be the more appropriate term. They approach each song with a fan’s enthusiasm, excitedly mimicking the music they love with their own words in place of, say, Robert Smith’s. This youthful spark of energy (the band’s members are all still fairly young) does enough to give Human Ceremony some life, but these tunes are still someone else’s ideas given repeated rather than re-interpreted.
The band have, in press statements, noted that the writing and recording of Human Ceremony came together in seven days. While the quality of the recordings doesn’t indicate that, the haphazard construction of the album most certainly does. The album comes on in fits as each song shows a different side of Sunflower Bean. The title track opens things with a dream-pop dirge that juxtaposes Julia Cumming’s airy, dreamlike vocals with Nick Kivlen’s snotty bleat. Already, the clash of styles is present, and it’s more jarring than interesting. Then, they leap right into the twee-punk hybrid of “Come On,” a song that doesn’t suit Cumming at all. The rest of the album maintains this schizophrenic feel as the band seemingly cycle through the best parts of their record collections, from booming proto-metal (“Wall Watcher”) through folk (“Oh, I Just Don’t Know”) and a foray into psychedelia (“Space Exploration Disaster”) to no avail.
Lyrically, Sunflower Bean’s offerings are slim. There’s a lot of teenage angst and alienation, which is to be expected from a band comprised of actual teenagers. These subjects aren’t approached with any new or enlightening perspective, but then again, it may be a bit of a mistake to expect genius from them at this point in their careers. Truthfully, the lyrics might be the most consistent part of Human Ceremony, and they work well with some of the dreamy, meditative songs on the album. It only really becomes a problem when they abruptly decide to rock out and the brashness in Kivlen’s voice belies their youth and inexperience.
Ultimately, Human Ceremony is unremarkable despite its flaws. Its moments of vigor and excitement are repeatedly undercut by the overwhelming familiarity of it all, but that’s not because of any derivative quality in the music. No, what makes Human Ceremony so unremarkable is the sense that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of bands exactly like Sunflower Bean, playing basements and dive bars across the country. It’s certainly a lot of fun being in one of those bands, and this isn’t to say that Sunflower Bean won’t ever make a great record. However, as a first public outing for a young band, it seems to promise a finished product that isn’t there yet, and no amount of exuberance can shake off the feeling of emptiness that lingers.