Brooklyn rock trio Sunflower Bean are back with the follow-up to their 2016 debut album, Human Ceremony, and this time around, they’re making it clear just how much they’ve grown up since then. The title of their new album, Twentytwo in Blue, references the age of their band members and it’s not just the title that makes their newfound sense of adulthood known. Everything about the album practically screams maturity and artistic development and it’s apparent to listeners right from the get-go in the album’s opening track “Burn It.”
Julia Cumming sings with a kind of self-assurance that we haven’t heard before and later she sings, “The street it has my name / I burn it to the ground,” a fitting reference to a band that’s trying to shed any previous perceptions of their sound and dodge any and all labels. The song’s 70’s pop/rock aesthetic marks a dramatic shift in sound for the band and it’s one of many new areas that they explore on this album.
Next is I Was A Fool, which was the first taste of the album that fans got last year and though it was a late entry, it certainly made a strong case for one of the best tracks of 2017. Cumming’s vocals are just so luscious and her bassline is so simple yet devilishly infectious and melodic. Then, there’s the song’s duet dynamic with the vocal interplay between Cumming and lead guitarist Nick Kivlen, whose muffled vocals were recorded into a phone and are a perfect juxtaposition to Cumming’s rich, heavenly voice.
The song’s centrepiece and almost-title track, Twentytwo features a complex melody that takes a bit of time to wrap your head around, but once it clicks, it’s impossible to escape the spell that Cumming unleashes with her strongest Sunflower Bean vocal performance to date. In fact, fans of the band’s early work might not even immediately recognize Cumming’s voice. Many people have pointed out the Fleetwood Mac quality of her voice, but Cumming’s colossal, soaring vocals are even worthy of an Abba namedrop. The track is undeniably the most mature and developed song the band has ever written with its intricate, meticulous vocal melody and the dynamic, dramatic sound that’s built up with the help of strings.
Another single from the album, Crisis Fest demonstrates why this band simply needs to exist in 2018. The song is a battle cry for young fans of the group who find themselves demoralized by President Trump and the rise of conservatism, an uncertain job market, debilitating levels of student debt and a pending nuclear war between unhinged, power-hungry dictators with the temperament of 5-year-old children. Sunflower Bean knows better than anyone else that the only way to forget the world’s problems is by losing your inhibitions through live music and this upbeat, anthemic slice of pop is a call to arms made for those teenage moshpits.
Memoria is the first bit of jangly guitars to reappear, which mirror the hypnotizing quality of Human Ceremony, but Cumming is quick to set the record straight as she sings, “The past is the past for a reason.” And she’s right. By this point in the tracklist, it’s obvious that Julia Cumming has become such a powerhouse lead vocalist and with this track, all we can do is sit and marvel at such a natural talent, blooming before our very eyes and ears.
Jacob Faber’s opening drums on Puppet Strings could easily fool you into thinking you’ve just turned on “Howling For You” by The Black Keys, but what follows these drums will surprise listeners. Cumming and Kivlen engage in funky, soulful shared vocals alongside Faber’s stomping percussive foundation. The song begins as another nod to a more classic, retro pop/rock sound, but once Kivlen’s twisting, near-psych guitar solo emerges, the band makes you rethink any preconceived notion you may have had about the song.
The smoky intro of Only A Moment is the perfect change in tempo as Cumming slows things down with a twinkle of Lana Del Rey in her voice and Kivlen’s slide guitar lulling listeners into a serene and sheltered frame of mind. If Only A Moment is the album’s blissful lullaby, the following track, Human For is the one that shakes you awake, kicks you up off the couch and sends you back to the dancefloor. Human For features Kivlen’s heavy, crunchy guitar tone, cascading, building drums, a sample of warped, religious spoken-word and Cumming’s self-assured, empowering vocals that unapologetically bask in the rock and roll limelight for the first time on the record.
Any Way You Like is another track that may catch you off guard, but, of course, for a completely different reason. Kivlen’s guitar tone mimics the Twin Peaks theme and its haunting quality continues with Kivlen’s hazy, murky vocals, but once Cumming joins in, the song effortlessly shifts and is elevated from brooding uncertainty to uplifting beauty.
As with the previous song and as Cumming warned us on the opening track (“The only constant is you’re changing”), the drastic new sound of Sinking Sands doesn’t disappoint. Kivlen’s vocals and guitars are strangely and largely free of distortion and it’s got a bit of an 80’s American new wave rock feel, much like the sound emulated by modern day bands like Public Access TV. Though it wouldn’t sound out of place on the end credits of films like The Sandlot, the addition of piano and Cumming’s delicate vocals allows the song to transcend that American new wave label. Cumming sings “Well I’ve got this feeling / It’s the fear of the unknown,” but you wouldn’t know it by the band’s ambitious ventures into a new musical territory.
The closing track, Oh No, Bye Bye offers some much-needed acoustic guitar and Cumming and Kivlen sing with the most drastic contrast between their voices on display. The song finishes with a bold, climactic medley of acoustic guitar and distorted strings and electric guitar and this outro could easily be a compelling musical odyssey of its own. On this track, Cumming and Kivlen pose a question of apocalyptic insecurity, “So we have another year / Do you think that we have the time / Do you think we can make it together / Do you think it would be alright,” and it appears as long as they’re writing songs of this caliber, the band and their fans will make it out just fine.
Some listeners may have a problem with Twentytwo in Blue’s derivative, retro sound, but the pure strength of the songwriting on this album far surpasses any notion that this is a backwards-thinking album. Other listeners might mourn the loss of those jangly psych jams, but it’s a fair price to pay in the name of songwriting craft and artistic development (and we do still get a taste if you listen hard enough).
At every turn, the band takes an opportunity to mature and not just on songwriting, but on execution. Frontwoman Julia Cumming has come out of her shell and into her own on this album with a sense of fearlessness and confidence that many wouldn’t have seen coming. Perhaps Kivlen’s guitar playing is a bit more restrained, but it’s just as melodic as before and it’s much better suited to the band’s new material. Even drummer Jacob Faber has shown progress since the band’s debut with a more refined, rich and varied sound, in part due to the diversity of the tracklist.
Lyrically, Twentytwo in Blue shows a band much more rooted in reality. While their debut explored abstract themes of time, religion and mythology, their new album touches on topics of utmost importance in the modern age: the perils of young adulthood, the dire political landscape, fighting one’s own self-doubt and leaving memories where they belong (even if we’re initially reluctant). If Human Ceremony is a necessary retreat away from life’s madness through elaborate, metaphysical jams worth getting lost in, Twentytwo in Blue is the imperative, defiant ride back into the sunrise that pulls you up by your bootstraps via exceptional, tried and true pop/rock that addresses all the world’s problems head-on. On this album, Sunflower Bean rightfully claims their title as indie-rock royalty.