Soccer Mommy dives into deep water on the gorgeous, devastating ‘color theory’
By Austin Sisson
The lead single of Soccer Mommy’s sophomore album features a lyric video straight from the opening scenes of The Matrix. Like the central conceit of that film, color theory is about waking up from a fabricated utopia into a world that is darker and colder, yet infinitely more valuable on the merit of its authenticity.
Two years after her excellent debut, Clean—a name derived from the desire for rebirth and reinvention in the wake of lost relationships—color theory feels less like a sequel and more like an important second chapter. Clean was about shedding external baggage, making a break, and striking off on one’s own. color theory is a turn inward, asking the question that always follows a breakup or the dissolution of a friendship: “okay, I’m alone with myself…what now?” Listeners searching for answers and platitudes should look elsewhere. But for those interested in exploring the heartbreak and catharsis that come with honest self-exploration, color theory is revelatory.
It is also a serialized, long-form project that warrants listening in order. Though Sophie Allison has proven a knack for fully characterizing her subjects in a line or two (see Mary in 2018’s “Cool”), color theory orbits around a central figure, with each color-coded section adding nuance to her being, until we feel as though we know her as intimately as Sophie does.
Opener “bloodstream” begins with a memory of youth set over a bright but lethargic riff; it’s Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun,” dilated by the filter of memory and nostalgia. That distortion is the first sign that something is up, and sure enough, the child with skinned knees and flushed cheeks quickly gives way to a “pale girl staring through the mirror.” The transformation hits hard; Allison is only 22, but chronic illness afflicting her immediate family has turned a decade into an eon. Each chorus lingers just long enough to become uncomfortable, a potent reminder that, with age, wounds take longer and longer to heal.
“circle the drain” strums along like an early-aughts church camp praise-and-worship song, underpinned by a dizzy guitar line, the sound of a spool of yarn unreeling. In the pre-chorus, Allison manages to pinpoint a universal ennui with the simple mantra: “things feel that low sometimes / even when everything is fine.” Like the cartoon dog sitting in the burning room, the phrase “everything is fine” is a facade that Allison continues to acknowledge and dismantle throughout the record.
The space between the words “night swimming” distinguishes the song from R.E.M’s Automatic for the People track, but Allison’s offering is just as lush as she wades into the arc of a doomed relationship hallmarked by emotional unavailability that finally ends in abandonment. The line “we learned to dance, and I was swaying all alone / you’re stiff as stone” foreshadows the song’s ending, still a few minutes off but connected with a thorough line of slant rhymes—all long, plaintive O’s that hang in the air like a siren song. The production on this track is immersive, and it’s so easy to feel like a bystander on the beach watching the drama unfold. So when the atmosphere suddenly glitches out and we’re left with Allison’s voice repeating “a sinking stone” before ambient beach sounds wash back in, the impact is palpable. It’s the singular sensation of dunking your head underwater and hearing the world go silent. Then you come up for air and the water leaves your ears, gradually replaced by the resumed rush of waves and calls of seabirds. It’s lovely.
Hitching onto these gorgeous songs like a burr is the sharp, impressionistic “crawling in my skin.” Brutal pleas like “sedate me all the time / don’t leave me with my mind” join a discordant descending guitar riff, anxious harmonies and static vocal distortion, each evoking decay and claustrophobia. “Seeing black slip through the cracks / pouring out of the walls” cops to the fact that the facade may be slipping, and this song marks an uneasy midpoint in the album. To paraphrase another artist who deftly utilized the phrase “crawling in my skin,” we’re one step closer to the edge, and something is about to break.
In the excellent single, “yellow is the color of her eyes,” we reach a thesis statement. Nestled among more excellent guitar work that evokes the caustic, distilled anxiety of Pixies’ “Caribou,” Allison calls attention to the facade, the effort she’s been going through to mask her pain: “inside I’m still so blue / can’t erase the hue / it’s just colored over.” The track ends in a melancholy instrumental breakdown à la “We Are the Champions” without the braggadocio, as if Freddie and company had actually taken third place and were bravely trying to make the best of it. “yellow is the color of her eyes” paints a bleak portrait of mental and physical illness and the messy overlap that so often connects the two, but it also signals the beginning of a catharsis that reaches its peak in the closing track
Before that the vocal melody of “up the walls” join a crisp, icy percussion line to hover over the oppressive lyrics. And “lucy” brings back some of the raw swagger Allison displayed in “Your Dog,” driven home by post-chorus instrumentation that has an oddly fitting analogue in Collective Soul’s “December.” Allison has described the production of the album as distorted and decaying snippets of her childhood music, and it’s quite possible that I’m projecting the memory of my dusty Collective Soul tapes onto her work. But something tells me she would want me to do that.
On album closer “gray light,” a preprogrammed Casio beat provides a bit of comic relief as Allison demonstrates her immense talent as a lyricist. “I cry to the moon / and beg it to change me or rip me in two / There’s pieces of you / They cover my body it’s so hard to chew / And I see the noose / It’s stuck to my fingers, I’ve pulled at the glue.” It’s a densely layered tapestry of existential anxiety, providing the backdrop for the intensely personal admission “I’m watching my mother drown.” Finally meeting the “her” from the track “yellow is the color of her eyes” feels unceremonious, stark. It feels like reality. In utilizing the metaphor of drowning, Allison names the logical endpoint of the aquaphobia hinted at throughout the album. “It’s waiting there swimming through my bloodstream / and it’s gonna come for me.” Circling the drain, sinking like a stone.
In an interview with The Current, Allison mentions the surreal feeling of touring with acts like Slowdive and Paramore, noting that she “never thought [they] would like my music.” color theory manages to find points of connections with each, including some other admitted influences like Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch, in a way that doesn’t feel like homage. Her creative voice is so singular that even her 2018 cover of “I’m On Fire” feels like an original, and her clear-eyed songwriting unites her disparate influences—from the sunset sensuousness of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour to the emotional heft of Michelle Branch’s The Spirit Room—before transcending them to tell a wholly unique story. If some artists are magpies, taking bits and pieces from others to assemble their own nests, Allison is an albatross; gliding on air currents left by others toward a destination known only to her. And despite all her fears of drowning, the creative honesty present on color theory is a clear indication that dry land is in sight.