Although Soccer Mommy’s 2018 debut studio album Clean transformed Sophie Allison into a critical favorite, indie rock leader and tour opener for Paramore, Kacey Musgraves and Vampire Weekend, anyone who’s grappled with mental illness knows that success isn’t a salve. Following Clean, Allison became especially vocal about her struggles with body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety. These challenges remained at the periphery of Clean’s tales about youthful, regretful romantic breakdowns and insecurities, but on her eagerly anticipated Clean follow-up color theory, Allison bravely pulls her mental illness from the sidelines to the forefront, and she also tackles a grave subject she’s spoken about far less frequently: her mother’s terminal cancer.
Success neither curing mental illness nor reversing a parent’s medical death sentence is a lot for a 22-year-old to face, but Allison is more than up to the task. color theory is an astounding feat of lyricism as clever as it is devastating. Allison’s songwriting, production and voice are likewise orders of magnitude stronger than they were on Clean, recalling ’90s alt radio while pushing Soccer Mommy in galvanizing new directions. To call it an early contender for the year’s best indie rock album would be an understatement: This is an album of the year candidate regardless of genre, plain and simple.
Throughout color theory, Allison uses three colors to symbolize the topics she addresses. Blue represents depression, yellow represents illness such as her mother’s, and gray represents various forms of darkness, including fear of death. “Why am I so blue?” she asks during the chorus of opener “bloodstream,” on which she exposes the harsh realities of depression via tales of self-harm and hating how she looks. The chorus hinges on a mildly acidic guitar chug and Allison’s most poignant metaphor to date (“Happiness is like a firefly on summer evenings / Feel it slipping through my fingers, but I can’t / Catch it in my hands”), and the pianos and wailing guitars of the song’s outro are just the icing atop an already sublime cake.
Yellow dominates “yellow is the color of her eyes,” a track that includes a sentiment Earth-shattering to even think, let alone sing. “Loving you isn’t enough,” she calls to her dying mother while she’s overseas touring, “You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.” Acoustic strums and woozy arpeggios culminate in a scorching guitar solo that stands in where words can’t quite do her agony justice: The pain of racing against the clock to spend time with a dying parent is unspeakable. On another song about Allison’s mother, color theory closer “gray light,” the themes of yellow and gray mix atop gentle but disconcerting guitars and just about the most devastating final album lyric possible: “I can’t lose it / I’m watching my mother drown.”
If the often morbid nature of color theory sounds so heavy it’s unbearable, then Allison’s wisest choice is to let the light shine in. Lead single “lucy” is a darkly bursting but jovial beacon of sneering guitar bends, and Allison cheekily referring to Lucifer by the nickname “Lucy” brings levity to a song about how that gray darkness is always lurking around the corner. “circle the drain” is pure alt radio candy, with a riff that recalls every ’90s artist now relegated to drugstore PAs. But instead of sounding uninspired, it’s immensely euphoric and inescapably catchy. As bubbling synths elevate the chorus to spine-tingling zeniths, it’s easy to miss that it’s Allison’s heart—her very essence—that’s circling the drain.
Allison achieves her deftest balance of dread and playfulness on the album’s pinnacle, “royal screw up.” Only acoustic strums and Allison’s voice open the track, so her oddly hilarious exclamations of “I’m the princess of screwing up!” and “I am fake it ‘til you make it in a can!” don’t go missed, just as her brutal assessment that “I’m not so pretty / When I am naked” hits like a basketball-sized hailstone. As heartbeat kick drums and dizzy guitars drift in, Allison’s ruminations on self-sabotage and depression (“Now and always I will break my own bones / ‘Til my legs stop walking and my bed is my throne”) grow from mild confessions to crushing tearjerkers. Even as her mental illness ruins her, she gets the last laugh: She pairs the outro’s crushing strings with, of all things, canned applause. “Stunning” is an overused descriptor, but the song is among a small handful of recent tracks where it might genuinely apply.
Though Allison singing “I am the captain of it all” on “royal screw up” is an acknowledgment that she’s prone to self-sabotage, it doubles as a statement of resolve. In facing her mental illness and her mother’s physical illness head-on, Allison discovers that she has the power to keep her inner demons (Lucy included) at bay. Success may not be a salve, but color theory is a resounding triumph.
Revisit Soccer Mommy’s 2018 Paste session: