Headful of Sugar was mainly recorded at the band’s home studio. Staying local gave Sunflower Bean less overhead costs to contend with, and as such gave them more time to experiment. They capitalized by simplifying their sound; stripping down the instrument play intentionally while also exploring a variety of sonic tones. Some of this change is surely down to Olive Faber, as the band’s drummer took on the role of sound engineer for the first time.
The three-piece is rounded out by Julia Cumming (bass and vocals) and Nick Kivlen (guitar and vocals). Kivlen was given more vocalist responsibilities on this album (having a prominent role on “Roll the Dice”, “In Flight”, and “Beat the Odds”), but Cumming is still the force driving the machine. The album often features her vocals ethereally floating over Olive Faber’s subtle, enhancing drum play.
The album begins with Cumming’s voice floating over a steady, psych-inspired mix on “Who Put You Up to This”. Faber’s drums are the steady force driving the sound forward, while interweaving guitar and bass solos serve as backup noise to her soaring lyrics. The lyrical emphasis for the album is set when Cumming states, “I’m burning up all the obligations/And I’m gonna take a permanent vacation”.
The album takes a number of twists and turns in its sonic tones, beginning with ethereal, psychedelic pop vibes (which is reinforced by track two sounding like it could be a Red Hot Chili Peppers song) before diving into songs with garage rock (“Roll the Dice”) and pop (including “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes”) tones.
The lyrics backing the instruments depict a world on the precipice of disaster. Nick Kivlen stated in promotional materials for the album that, “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.”
Sunflower Bean’s approach to social criticisms is well reflected on tracks four and ten. On track four, Cumming exclaims that “Nothing in this life is really free”. The band is not entirely bitter at the world, rejecting the notion of becoming a recluse and instead reveling in some of the highs that do exist. Kivlen’s lyrics respond to the notion that everything has a price when he says, “I wanna roll the dice again”. There are little sugar highs in this world of poisoned wells which make life worth living after all.
“Beat The Odds” (track ten) continues with this theme of indulging small pleasures in a difficult world. Kivlen says, “I can taste success now/Late nights, late nights”, between powerful, pulsating guitar and bass lines. Kivlen, and by extension Sunflower Bean, hope to beat the odds. The band has been beaten down by a system they view as being broken (namely, that we are in late capitalism and society is racing towards a reckoning point) but they also accede that there are genuine pleasures in this world (however fleeting they may be).
Headful of Sugar is a tight, efficient 11 song, 36 minute album. I finished and wondered, “I should listen again, right?”