Soccer Mommy’s music has a distinctive turn-of-the-millennium touch. Twenty-two-year-old bandleader Sophie Allison grew up listening to Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch, pop artists whose clean guitar lines and glossy grunge appealed to suburban teens whose hangout of choice was, by necessity, the mall. The aesthetic of her sophomore album, color theory, is a veritable moodboard for the era that she was born into: The Matrix, The X-Files, a bubblegum-snapping, wide-angle lens press photo that wouldn’t look out of place in a dELiA*s catalog. Soccer Mommy’s music has a lot in common with the mutations of radio rock and pop that existed in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and if color theory came out 20 years ago, there’s a good case to be made that it would have lit the charts on fire.
Allison’s music wasn’t always so pop-leaning. When she first started putting out songs about five years ago, she recorded them in her bedroom and uploaded them directly to Bandcamp. These songs were sparse, scrawling, and hypnotically constructed. Their gauzy sheen revealed a voice that sounded like it had been worn down by life at a young age. Her proper full-length debut, 2018’s Clean, kept that world-weariness and added in a sharp pop edge. Its highlights — “Your Dog,” “Cool,” “Scorpio Rising” — invited comparisons to Liz Phair and Taylor Swift, and she was boosted by a full band and an adept producer (Gabe Wax, who won a Grammy for working with the War On Drugs). Both return for her sophomore album, more sure of themselves and Soccer Mommy’s sound.
Allison’s songwriting has only gotten more precise on color theory. The poppiest songs (“circle the drain,” “lucy,” “bloodstream”) have sweeping arrangements and massive choruses. But even the quieter and more unassuming tracks (“night swimming,” “stain,” “gray light”) are full of little details that show off how confident this band has become in being able to maintain a persistent mood. Allison said that she wanted the album to sound like “a dusty old cassette tape that has become messed up over time,” and she succeeds in that goal.
These songs have feedback hisses and warped guitars that feel like sinkholes. There are scraping silences and deadened deliveries that make Allison sound like she’s transmitting from some far-off unknown. “royal screw up” has canned applause and decorative strings; “crawling up the walls” builds into a danceable wriggle. There’s so much going on in these songs that only becomes clear on repeat listens. color theory is a lonely and insular album, but it’s a testament to the band that the songs are so relistenable in their hands. Allison spins hooks out of her darkest thoughts, and invites you to wallow alongside her, together.
“circle the drain,” the album’s masterpiece, is a song about the cyclical nature of depression, portraying it as something that you can’t help but get sucked into. It burbles and swirls, crisp and acoustic and twangy guitars all wrapping around each other to sound like the world’s most miserable merry-go-round. She approaches her distress matter-of-factly — the alienation, the loneliness, the attempts to do better. “Things feel that low sometimes/ Even when everything is fine,” she sings conversationally. “Hey, I’ve been falling apart these days.” It’s a simple sentiment, but its very existence confirms the reality of an uncontrollable experience: Sometimes your brain chemistry has you feeling like shit and there is no reason why.
There’s a loose conceptual framework to color theory. Allison has said that it’s split into three sections which represent her different moods: blue, yellow, and gray. Picture those hues in their darkest forms, because color theory is a trudge through Allison’s deepest fears. The songs are all about doubt and death and inexplicable sadness. She pulls you down into the depths with her, personified on “lucy” as the Devil himself: “Quit taunting me,” she begs on it, hoping to stave off the repetitive thought cycles that leave you wondering how and when you’re going to die, or simply just mess up again.
Allison speaks of her mental health in vampiric and parasitic terms. It has her climbing up the walls, it’s crawling in her skin, there’s mold in her brain and it’s spreading all the way down. Her imagery is often nightmarish: “With blood on my lips like wine/ My eyes glow in the knife/ Paralyzed” is how she describes her inability to change what’s coming for her. She tries to trace the root of these emotions. On “bloodstream,” she echoes back to childhood memories that have haunted her, skinned knees and self-harm and the calming breeze of a summer night. “What did you have that I didn’t? And why am I so blue?” she asks. “Someone’s talking in my forehead that says I’ll never be like you.”
A big part of the album is the slow creep and inevitability of death. Much of it is informed by her mother’s chronic illness — she was diagnosed with cancer when Allison was a teenager. “yellow is the color of her eyes” is a tribute to her that is weighed down by morbidity: “Loving you isn’t enough/ You’ll be deep in the ground when it’s done,” she sings. On closing track “gray light,” she observes the same Grim Reaper hanging over her head: “Am I gonna be there way too soon?/ ‘Cause I see the noose/ It follows me closely, whatever I do.”
These feelings keep Allison locked inside herself. She sits in her room and watches TV when no one else is around, feels exhausted from keeping up the act that everything is alright. On “royal screw up,” she fantasizes about a fairytale prince coming to save her, but reaches the conclusion that she’s not worth saving. She wants something better for herself, but feels betrayed by her body and mind, leaving her ill-equipped to make the moves to improve. “I want an answer to all my problems,” she sings. “But there’s not an answer/ I am the problem for me.”
color theory is a closed loop that answers every depressing question with an equally depressing answer. No matter what hallway Allison travels down, she’s met with the same struggle. It’s a heavy album, one that evokes the helplessness that comes with depression, but there is light peeking out even from its darkest corners. “I want someone who is following a dream/ Someone like me,” she yearns on “night swimming,” her monochromatic shades offering a potential escape. These songs seem like a part of that escape, a way to excavate personal demons and provide a way to keep going in spite of it all.
color theory is out 2/28 via Loma Vista.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Caribou’s Suddenly, which we’ll talk more about later this week (though you can read this interview now).
• Real Estate’s daydreamy and melodic The Main Thing.
• Princess Nokia’s dual albums Everything Sucks and Everything Is Beautiful.
• Ratboys’ roaring and sentimental Printer’s Devil.
• Ty Segall and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale’s debut as Wasted Shirt, Fungus II.
• Fluisteraars’ expansive and soaring Bloem.
• Cayetana’s Augusta Koch makes her solo full-length debut as Gladie with Safe Sins.
• Shell Of A Shell’s noisy and scrappy Away Team.
• The Orielles’ sleek and dancey Disco Volador.
• Tombs’ ominous and booming Monarchy Of Shadows.
• Hoops leader Kevin Krauter’s solo effort Full Hand.
• Tycho’s pleasant Simulcast.
• Reggie Watts and John Tejada’s latest team-up as Wajatta, Don’t Let Get You Down.
• System Of A Down drummer John Dolmayan’s cover album These Grey Men.