Five years since sprouting from the suburbs, there is a new addition to Sunflower Bean’s stalk – ahem, stock. 2016’s Human Ceremony (and its jangly main attraction ‘Easier Said’) released on Fat Possum to unanimous approval. Now older, paler and attached to a new record label, Julia Cumming, Nick Kivlen and Jacob Faber have produced a second sacrifice – Twentytwo In Blue.
Opening track ‘Burn It’ conveys the wallflower’s desire to set their home town alight well. It’s a slow fry in that it takes a few playbacks for Kivlen’s scorching riff to penetrate the subconscious. When it does, grinning and sincere, the part of the brain curbing your wildest impulses is pierced too and a pyromaniac is born. Without quite reaching boiling point, ‘Burn It’ is a warm welcome if not the record’s brightest flame.
That’s ‘I Was A Fool’, released last year as a single. The vocals are of such sincere clarity they beg to be adored, ringing with all the triumphant malaise of one abandoned at the Christmas disco. Just when you think Kivlen’s supporting croak has conceded defeat – “just a child who can’t keep his word” – Cumming commandeers destiny, her falsetto valediction so visceral it could besot killer crocodiles. It’s the sort of single that arrives once in a blue moon: unlike anything in fashion, treading a tightrope but emerging, shimmering, on the side of success. It’s Sunflower Bean’s best offering yet and the signpost by which their releases from here on should be measured.
Twentytwo In Blue is an ancient relic, doused in the spectre of Lynn Anderson’s Rose Garden. Subtle strings evoke 60s summers, sandy Polaroid and sepia in the shoes. Cumming’s gentle coos project anxiety surrounding age and expectation; the defiant “I do not go quietly / into the night that calls me” a Lana-Del-ray of sunlight in even the duskiest hour. It’s elegant in the same way an emu is, and twice as beautiful.
Faber’s drum intro on ‘Crisis Fest’ is a promising start, mockingbird turned angsty eagle. The hunter takes aim at its own constitution, a Birdemic-scale attack on (squawk) The American Government. Sadly by the clumsy chorus it has exposed itself as a protest song of the tawdry-racket variety. Rarely do Sunflower Bean pen a mishit, but “2017 we know / reality’s one big sick show” has the eyes performing somersaults. I don’t see ‘Crisis Fest’ inspiring any coups.
Blue and red flashes of The Police are present in ‘Memoria’, an unwinding parable that asserts “the past is the past for a reason”. Reflections tumble into one another – “you are the mother / who turns in her sleep / over and / over and / over”; “I’m done going to / all the places that we used to / in my head”. A spellbinding bass solo gives way to one final nudge of “I’m lying in the road for a reason”, over-insistence betrayed as the past proves inescapable. Pertinent, poignant – another standout.
‘Puppet Strings’ is fine but filler, as is the next but one, ‘Human For’ – inoffensive knockouts, maintaining morale as the end comes into sight. ‘Only A Moment’ is Twentytwo In Blue’s last vital contribution, tears lamenting fleeting love against the curtain of a funereal waltz wiped away come the realisation “you’re EXACTLY where you’re supposed to be”. It’s the ultimate concession, melancholy bordering on hypnosis, the lonely echo of the ungratified sinking into the abyss… and yet, the most euphoric song on the album. Really!
Kivlen takes lead on the verses in ‘Any Way You Like’ and ‘Sinking Sands’, both of which sound a bit like Congratulations-era MGMT outtakes. ‘Any Way You Like’ steers into the territory of call-and-response kitsch. “And you can drive my car / if I can ride in yours / and you can be in my dreams / if I am real in yours”. It’s sickly sweet but perhaps that’s the point. ‘Sinking Sands’ yaks on about “the radio” and “my friend Max” while saying very little.
And so the optimistic ‘Oh No, Bye Bye’ carries the Velvet Underground’s torch out of smoky New York. “Well at least we would have each other / and I think it would be alright”. Sometimes fireworks are unnecessary. One last folky guitar solo and the shutters close on Twentytwo In Blue, the curious second chapter. A meandering B-side cannot detract from its intrinsic value as an artefact preserving a band in evolution – not to mention the glacial strength of the first five or so songs.
Sunflower Bean have yet to release an album as polished as their contemporaries at sophomore stage. They are a diamond in the rough, lacking the gawky vulnerability of Alvvays, the razor sharp poetry of Wolf Alice. Arguably, Twentytwo In Blue showcases a wider range in terms of tone and genre – Sunflower Bean are anything but one-dimensional – testing all waters, at the expense of finesse. They are best at their bleakest (‘Memoria’, ‘Only A Moment’), their most nostalgic (‘I Was A Fool’, ‘Twentytwo’). More boisterous moments tend to fall flat (‘Puppet Strings’, ‘Human For’); at worst they come off twee and inessential (‘Any Way You Like’, ‘Sinking Sands’). It is unfortunate, too, that the track order doesn’t do Sunflower Bean’s versatility justice, the weak bunched together like in PE.
In spite of misgivings Sunflower Bean remain utterly compelling. Perhaps it’s their unlikelihood as a trio: a Jesse Eisenberg-lookalike, a drummer frailer than his sticks and an Odyssean Siren coming together and prevailing against the odds of such a line-up ever making it out of the garage. These things take time. Give them some and expect Sunflower Bean to blossom brightly.