Sunflower Bean – ‘Headful Of Sugar’ review: freewheeling fun and uninhibited highs from New York greats

The returning trio embrace cheap thrills and chaos as they reassert themselves as one of the best bands around


“Everything in the world was up in the air, our record was up in the air and our lives were up in the air,” Sunflower Bean guitarist and singer Nick Kivlen told The Forty-Five last year. The New York trio’s third album ‘Headful Of Sugar’ might have come to life during the uncertainty of the pandemic, but it’s far from a record full of trepidation. Instead, it embraces cheap thrills and fast pleasures, offering a liberating escape from the inhibition of ordinary times. 

I don’t care what tomorrow thinks,” singer and bassist Julia Cumming declares on the strutting ‘I Don’t Have Control Sometimes’. “Today I’m totally mine.” It’s a proclamation that sums up part of the record’s MO – to live for and in the moment. The rest of the song finds the frontwoman recounting gloriously reckless behaviour (“Locked out of my house / Get a terrible tattoo […] Wasted all my money on Tecate and some limes”) with such infectious glee it makes you want to follow suit. 

Instead of hedonism, the shadowy sludge of ‘Roll The Dice’ hunts for quick wins and massive gains, a reaction to the financial glass ceiling that most millennials and generations coming up behind them won’t get close to smashing through in this lifetime. “Emptying my bank account, chasing a real living,” Kivlen and Cumming sing in unison between urgent calls of “I just wanna win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win”. 

The instant gratification lifestyle – whether in terms of dollars rolling into your account or running around the city finding joy in chaos – isn’t something you can keep up consistently for long. The sugar rush is always followed by a crash and the real world will always come back around to bite you, as Kivlen acknowledges on the record’s syrupy, psych-y title track: “I had a little too much fun today…”  

When Sunflower Bean aren’t throwing caution to the wind, they’re grappling with aspects of life in 2022. On the stunning soar of ‘Stand By Me’, Cumming questions whether a partner is “man enough to stand by side” or “strong enough to ride this ride” as she stays committed to living her life how she wants to, not kowtowing to more traditional, conventional forms of womanhood. ‘In Flight’, meanwhile, finds Kivlen searching for escape from suburban ennui and small-town stagnation. “Life is short and the cliffs are high / I don’t have to close my eyes / To see us in flight,” he vividly narrates, pulling the album’s undercurrent of risk-taking back into focus. 

Just as the album’s stories find Sunflower Bean largely unencumbered and free, musically ‘Headful Of Sugar’ finds liberation in new sounds for the band. ‘Post Love’ takes them to the heart of the dancefloor, hints of LCD Soundsystem, euphoric house and new wave meshed together and drummer Olive Faber’s rhythms pushing the sonic ecstasy to even greater heights. ‘Otherside’ drifts on an experimental soundscape populated by disorientating keys and spectral harmonies, while ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ serves up polished pop-rock that adds an effervescent gleam to the tail end of the record. 

Most of all, though, ‘Headful Of Sugar’ is the sound of a band casting aside any notions of what they can, can’t, should or shouldn’t do and going all-in on trusting themselves. The results are something incredibly special, bottling a moment in time and a generation’s reaction to it, and solidifying Sunflower Bean’s place as artists you can always count on – even when the rest of the world feels like it’s been turned upside down.

READ MORE: A New York Night Out With Sunflower Bean