The release of color theory is poised to be a big moment for Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison. And for good reason: her proper debut, 2018’s Clean, was an endlessly fun record that was equal parts romantic and snarky. Following widespread critical acclaim, including a spot on Pitchfork‘s “Best of the 2010s” list, Allison signed with major label Loma Vista and was the subject of a flattering New York Times feature. Hypothetically, all of these details position color theory, an ambitious sophomore record about mental illness and loss, as the kind of album that might propel Allison even further.
At times, it’s a wild success. Allison’s organizing principle for the record is a palate of three colors, representing different aspects of mental illness and family trauma. Opener “bloodstream” finds her trying to stave off depressive tendencies through distractions, like convincing herself to stare at blooming Hydrangeas, though she knows it’ll only lead to a “half-hearted calm ー the way I’ve felt since I was 13.” Early singles “lucy” and “circle the drain” deal with similarly dark topics but ー like the best moments from Clean ー they’re disguised as upbeat alt-earworms that could easily be mistaken for something from the Buzz Bin.
The most impressive part of color theory, though, is also its cornerstone, the sprawling “yellow is the color of her eyes”. The song is a tribute to Allison’s mother, who received a terminal cancer diagnosis when Allison was still a pre-teen. Throughout its seven minutes, she regrets the time she’s spent on the road, away from home, and acknowledges the inevitably of her mother’s passing. “Loving you isn’t enough,” she sings, “you’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.” The song slows and the band plays on for another minute, but Allison goes silent. After all, what else is there to say?
Unfortunately, not every moment’s as transcendent. The cleaner, more sophisticated production allows the album’s singles to shimmer, but it also magnifies some of the weaker aspects of Allison’s songwriting. The melodramatic string section on “royal screw up”, only amplifies its humorless and clunky lyrics: “I want an answer / To all my problems / But there’s not an answer / I am the problem.” A track later, “night swimming” (no, not “Nightswimming”) relies on moody, atmospheric synths to add some sonic depth, but it stops short of providing any real feeling.
One of Clean‘s strengths was its brevity; it never sat with an idea for too long, and the result was that the album begged to be re-played. Comparatively, color theory is 15 minutes longer despite having just as many tracks. Although Allison had a particular vision for the project, it’s tempting to wonder how much tighter the final product would’ve felt had it been put through a more rigorous edit.
In January, Allison mentioned that, unlike indie-rockers of the past, she’s actually shooting for a Top 40 hit. “It’s not going to break my heart if I can’t do it,” she said, “but I do have that ambition to possibly be really big one day.” color theory proves that’s not an impossible dream, even if it’s still a ways away.