‘Twentytwo in Blue’ Is a Sonic Snapshot of Youth From Sunflower Bean

Sunflower Bean blew up with their 2016 debut, “Human Ceremony,” earning critical accolades for their precociously eclectic genre-bending indie sound. The songs on that record were all written when the band members were in their teens, and the adolescent spirit certainly colored the sound. While impressively musically informed and admirable in its versatility, it showed a band often shuttling restlessly between styles with a sort of antsy naiveté. Their latest offering, “Twentytwo in Blue” finds all three of the band at that age, presenting a sound that has naturally matured and found newfound focus after an active last few years. Drummer Jacob Faber has mentioned the choice of the color blue in the title as “a representation of a big blue, open ocean, or a blues sky.” Indeed, the new album creates the feeling of a more uniform landscape than a confused collage, capturing the considerable artistic range of the band and channeling it more purposefully.

Many of the new songs explore the feeling of being 22. In the opening track, “Burn It,” lead singer and bassist Julia Cumming observes, “The only constant is that you’re changing.” This theme continues with the first single, “I Was A Fool,” in which she and guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen reflect, “I was a fool who lost his herd / I’m just a child who can’t keep his word.” The song has a Fleetwood Mac feel, a comparison that is often leveled at the band, and acknowledged. Cumming has cited “Tusk” as a favorite record of the band’s. A notable similarity is that Sunflower Bean is a band with multiple songwriters, and the way that their contributions blend recaptures a certain spirit. The song apparently came together in a jam session, during which Cumming and Kivlen both improvised lyrics that came together in a moment of serendipity — a remarkable feat indeed.

Cumming has spoken passionately about how “Twenty Two” is a particularly meaningful song for the band, one that they couldn’t wait for people to hear. It explores the feeling of newfound independence and the uncertainty, challenge, and deliberation that comes along with it. Certain lines appear to have been inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night,” a poem most believe to have been written for Thomas’s dying father. Needless to say, such grim concern is a bit far-fetched at 22. On the other hand, Sunflower Bean has been making strides at such speed that one might just credit it to their being so far ahead of the game.

“Crisis Show,” the second song is one of the catchiest moments on the record. There’s a certain punk element to Cumming’s energy, along with the whole song-smithing , which recalls early Blondie. There’s also a political bent, as Cumming sings, “2017 we know / Reality’s one big show / Every day’s a crisis fest / Your dancing shoes and torn-up dress.” Dispiriting as this may seem, there’s light at the end of tunnel, expressed in the threat, “We brought you into this place / You know that we can take you out.” When asked in a recent interview to describe the new album in one word, the band came up with “resilience.” And while there is a melancholy feel to most of the songs, there is also a palpable optimism in regard to both personal challenges and political concerns.

Cumming once described Sunflower Bean’s music, saying, “It’s like If Black Sabbath mixed with The Smiths, maybe?” Now that the band has refined and consolidated their sound, such influences are less jarring, but you can still hear them at moments. The jaunty, intricate guitar work of “Memoria” recalls Johnny Marr, while “Puppet Strings” and “Human For,” are on the heavier side, with moments of Sabbath-esque riffage, as well as an immediate punk energy. The latter features radio snippets that glitch up over distorted guitars, creating a psychedelic feel. Other songs, “Only a Moment,” and “Any Way You Like,” have a bright-eyed, dreamy ‘60s vibe. There’s a sentiment of hippie-tinged optimism, folk harmonies, and tambourines.  

“Twentytwo in Blue” showcase Cumming shining as a singer, tapping effortlessly into disparate sensibilities, and always sounding angelic. Kivlen’s occasional vocals, comparatively understated and unpolished, are an effective counterpoint, and when the two sing in concert, as in the concluding track, “Oh No, Bye Bye,” the music assumes a breadth encompassing both the immediate and the ethereal. The guitar work throughout the album is masterfully versatile, and the musicianship overall is superb. If “Human Ceremony” captured the feeling of teenage years, “Twentytwo in Blue” captures the specific feeling of age 22: it’s a snapshot of a particular, exciting and challenging moment in youth. In an era that has seen a general delaying of aging, a protracting of the twenties years’ mentality in culture — Bushwick and Portland, we’re looking at you — this is a widely relatable feeling.

Twentytwo in Blue” is available March 23 on Apple Music