At no point do Sunflower Bean sound out of their depth; if they adjusted their coordinates to include a Dan Nigro cowrite or talky post-punk, they’d probably pull that off too. The hooks, the flashy guitar solos, the profanity that will serve as the pull quote in any blurb: Headful of Sugar worked very hard to sound effortless. But coolness is a zero-sum game on a record that, like Twentytwo in Blue, aspires to have Something to Say about The Way We Live. Headful of Sugar launders Cumming and guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen’s experiences as “outsiders disillusioned in the modern world,” through “the lived experience of late capitalism”—things that are much tougher to discern in the music if you haven’t read the press materials first.
I can say that “Roll the Dice” successfully pulls off its attempt to wring a pop song from the GameStop stock-manipulation fiasco because its nagging hook (“I just wanna win, win, win, win, win!”) will almost certainly appear in the trailer when Hulu or Netflix buys the rights to the docudrama. But much like the recent wave of scammer-core limited series, Sunflower Bean recuse themselves of rendering any kind of judgment or opinion beyond “I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.” The breakup songs know exactly what responses they hope to trigger—“empowerment bop!” “epic clapback!”—though the performances render them emotionally inert. Instead, “Who Put You Up to This?” and “Stand By Me” resemble the interstitial music of Selling Sunset, its lyrics ruthlessly engineered to embellish someone else’s blow-up or glow-up rather than set a scene itself.
At no point does Headful of Sugar come off as cynical, though the central premise falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny: This is a largely beloved, well-connected, and unabashedly accessible rock band trying to be convincing as the voice of outcasts obeying their most reckless impulses. Studio perfectionism and social debauchery have long proven to be compatible, but the dissonance between the drunkalog of “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” and its rigorously market-tested KROQ-core bounce is too obvious to be unintentional. Besides, alienation is in the eye of the beholder, and Sunflower Bean write about their specific experience candidly on “In Flight.” Reflecting on a rare instance of downtime from touring and disconnection with his Long Island roots, Kivlen sings, “Nothing changes in this town/The people die or they move out,” adding a despairing punchline: “Everyone but me.” It’s the peak of Headful of Sugar, not because it’s the strongest hook or tightest harmony. It’s the most convincing instance of Sunflower Bean writing from the heart. They wear it well.
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