Have you ever had an album speak to you so elementally that you can’t help but pump it through your ears every chance you get?
Not a “she is singing about a breakup, I had one of those once” type of deal — something more desperate and less easily expressed in words. The drums pulse like the blood in your veins. The guitar riffs become your daily atmosphere, falling and wilting like leaves from the big oak in your front yard. The lyrics become your inner monologue, bewitching everything around you to glow like something worthy of writing down. Your Bluetooth headphones are always dying in your pocket.
Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory will inevitably be That Album for a lot of people. As she proved on her 2018 label debut Clean, 22-year-old singer-songwriter Sophie Allison has a magic touch for crafting perspective within her songs. Her lyrics carry you through anguish, jealousy, tenderness, and everything in between, working more in moods than in specific, drawer-in-your-sister’s-house-type details. The subject matter of her music is sometimes dark and always unflinchingly honest, but Allison armors the tender heart of her songs in warm, bright melodies. The result is something that sounds both fresh and familiar, like a thought you didn’t even know you had.
The conceit of Color Theory is probably familiar to anyone who has clicked on a music news blog in the past few months, but in case my reader is blessedly less online than I am, here’s a recap:Color Theory takes inspiration from three colors and their corresponding moods. The first third pairs blue with depression, the second concerns yellow and illness, and the third, gray death. The album’s ten songs paint vignettes of Allison’s worry, anticipation, darkness, and hope — and the spaces in between ask you to revisit your own.
At 21, I was suffering a full-blown quarter-life crisis. Unsure about my future for the first time in my whole life, I was unbearable. I’d found a community that sheltered me and supplied me with endless, misplaced confidence in my talents and abilities (shout out to college newspapers), and I was terrified of graduating and losing my little built-in audience. Months before I’d actually move away, I was pre-mourning the loss of all my friends, leaving parties early to go sit on couches, listen to The National alone, and practice for being sad and old.
Back then my favorite album in the world was Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett. My depression and ennui had a voice, and that voice had a charming Australian accent. A lifelong non-driver, I’d always been a careful pedestrian, but developed the habit of carelessly walking through my neighborhood at all hours of the night, headphones blasting while I was dead to the world outside them.
One night on the way home from the library and on my dozenth consecutive listen of “Elevator Operator,” somebody turned right on a red. The nose of the car bumped my left hip, sending my glasses soaring and flinging my body to the middle of the intersection. The car would have driven away if I hadn’t peeled myself up and started banging on the windshield, yelling for a card with a phone number I’d never call.
Although I didn’t go to the hospital (and thankfully didn’t have any major injuries apart from a gnarly bruise), the accident did make all my vague wonderings about death and obscurity feel very real. I started keeping a diary, writing down all my pedestrian crushes and roommate tussles so I’d always remember them. I thought a lot about my “legacy” and what I’d leave behind, whether it was anything worth looking at. I had dreams of getting some hot shot job, moving to Los Angeles, learning to drive, finding my future — my car crumpling like aluminum foil because I didn’t see that tree in the dark.
I leaned hard on music then to put words to feelings I couldn’t express, however many times I tried to write them down. Being lonely, feeling fragile and lost, and fearing the future are things we all deal with on some level, but I’m grateful these ghosts take up less space in my brain than they did five years ago. Even still, a warm guitar riff is all the encouragement they need to climb back out again.
It’s fitting, then, that the first word Allison sings on Color Theory is “remembering.” The album’s opening track, “Bloodstream,” draws parallels between growing up and mental health — the only thing scarier than your body changing too fast for your brain to keep up? Your brain changing too fast for your brain to keep up. Steeped in idyllic imagery (bare knees, park trees), Allison uses the images of childhood to describe the loss of it: “And happiness is like a firefly on summer evenings / Feel it slipping through my fingers but I can’t catch it in my hands.” A chronic album re-starter, I have a tendency to latch onto the first track or two of a record the most, and “Bloodstream” nails the tone that the whole rest of the album will follow.
Compared to Clean, Color Theory is quite a bit more genre-fluid and sonically experimental. She’s still got some defiant pop-rock anthems (“Circle The Drain,” “Lucy”), but in putting words and music to the three moods she’s describing, she shows off new sides of her artistry we haven’t seen. The cloud of death anticipation on “Gray Light” is soundtracked by some hazy guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, and the lone guitar of “Royal Screw Up” lets the honesty of the lyrics shine through. (I always feel silly making ahistorical musical comparisons, but something about the melody is giving me big beginning of “The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” vibes.)
Within the music critic-invented genre of Young Indie Woman, Allison’s music is often needlessly lumped in and compared with a host of other artists she has little in common with. I don’t think it happens out of malice — music critics or not, we’re all bombarded by so much new art, commodities, and content every day that the only way to sort through it is to make our own algorithms. But if Color Theory sounds familiar, it’s not because it sounds like everything else on your Daily Mix 2 right now. On poppier songs like “Circle The Drain,” the defiant, sunny melodies call to mind a time when Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson ruled analog teen pop radio — with an edge and Allison’s own artistry, of course.
“I wanted the experience of listening to Color Theory to feel like finding a dusty old cassette tape that has become messed up over time,” Allison said in press materials about the album. “The production warps, the guitar solos occasionally glitch, the melodies can be poppy and deceptively cheerful. To me, it sounds like the music of my childhood distressed and, in some instances, decaying.”
Apart from being a really spot-on description of the album’s brilliant, weirdo production, the image of the dusty old cassette tape is a flawless distillation of the experience listening to Color Theory. Reaching back to the music of her childhood, Allison makes Color Theory sound like an old favorite even after just a few spins. The melodies are well-loved and familiar, ready to take on all the memories listeners will inevitably fill them up with. I mean, I truly hope no one gets hit by a car while they’re listening to “Night Swimming,” but if they do, I can’t think of many prettier songs to get traumatized to.
With these ten songs, Allison collects and documents memory, never shying away from the dark stuff — feeling anxious, sick, ugly, lost, hopeless. Speaking with that much candidness is brave, but the cool thing about being vulnerable is inspiring others to do the same. Like a group session or a conversation between friends, Allison’s own honesty sparks a chain of reflection and understanding for the listener. The music speaks to you, and you speak back.
Color Theory is out 2/28 via Loma Vista. Get it here.