Music

With its stark lyrics, hypnotic melodies and unsettling production, Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory captures the anxiety of a generation facing an uncertain future. By Shaad D’Souza.

Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory

Sophie Allison, who performs as Soccer Mommy.
Credit: Brian Ziff

A recent feature in New York magazine made a bold declaration: “If every generation of partiers gets the drug that speaks to them – the psychedelic ’60s, the coke-and-disco-fueled ’70s, and the MDMA-hued early aughts – then perhaps the end of the decade marks the dawn of the dissociation generation.” The piece, about the rising use of the anaesthetic ketamine as a party drug among New York youth, posited that young people, pummelled left and right by natural disasters and unchecked capitalism, are in constant search of anything that can help them retreat into an internal world unburdened by these issues.

In a sense, the proclamation felt obvious: the vices of my generation – Generation Z, a cohort that has no memory of a time before September 11, and has never known a state of being without at least mild panic – are often designed to induce this dissociated state, or to explore it in some way. The video-sharing app TikTok, true to its name, tries to hook you in for hours, wasting more of your time with every scroll; Netflix encourages you to binge-watch its anonymous reality shows, numbing you into a fugue state. The popular HBO series Euphoria features a cast of teens looking to anaesthetise their brains into oblivion through drug use, technology addiction or both; the lead character in the superhero film Birds of Prey drifts into fantasy in response to physical pain. Since birth, Gen Z has been subjected to a parade of terrifying and unstoppable atrocities – is it any surprise that its cultural touchstones ended up like this?

Sophie Allison, the Nashville-based songwriter and guitarist who performs as Soccer Mommy, was born in May 1997, in the infancy of Gen Z; as such, her experiences, and the voice in which she writes, are uniquely linked to this troubled, emotionally neutered time. Allison’s earliest records, released on the venerated DIY label Orchid Tapes or posted directly to alternative music-sharing site Bandcamp, dealt with youthful anxiety and romance with an arch, irony-laden tone, countering earnest, pop-inspired melodies with lyrical death fantasies and tales of teen misery. On 2018’s Clean, she showcased a brighter, more clarified sound, augmented by surprising and disorienting production choices. With Color Theory, her second full-length album, and first for large Los Angeles label Loma Vista, Allison has created an essential document of Gen Z indie rock, a complex and profound record dealing with the eternal drudgery of modern life and the fantasies we indulge to get away from it.

Speaking to me about Color Theory over the phone, Allison describes the record as a tale of innocence lost – a classic theme rendered hypnotic here. Inspired by her own struggles with mental health, as well as the terminal illness her mother has struggled with for many years, Color Theory is darker and less humorous than Clean, an album that was glazed with romanticism. “My mother’s illness, paranoia, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, the existentialism of the world, they’re all these things I didn’t have as a child,” Allison tells me. “I can’t really ever get that innocence back, and it’s kind of like being degraded by something. Having little pieces of you chip off over time, being moulded into something different as time passes.” She likens the experience to a videotape developing “glitches and errors” as the years pass, losing the clarity it once had.

This analogy is fitting and applies as much to the tone and style of the album as it does to Allison’s outlook. Color Theory shifts and twitches, mutating in real time. Many of the tracks are built around simple, strummed chords that, over the course of a song, tear and unravel. “Bloodstream” ends with a cacophony of squalling, metallic guitars; the classic pop structure of the lead single “Lucy” is shredded by a series of harsh, skew-whiff chords. An electronic whirr on album closer “Gray Light” feels like the matrix glitching, a strange representation of paranoia. Allison uses her guitar to engender discomfort in the same way her lyrics, confronting and clear-eyed in their language, have a tendency to unsettle. The sparkling melodies of previous records are still audible, but they no longer obscure the darkness of what’s being said.

Many of these songs are fantasies of a sort, depressive and dissociative spirals that find Allison fixating on the minutiae of what’s around her or zoning out completely. On “Circle the Drain”, she is a whirlpool at the bottom of a kitchen sink, going “round and around”, the words repeating until their meaning is crushed into oblivion. In the same song, Allison makes reference to being “Chained to my bed when they’re gone / Watching TV alone / Till my body starts aching”, an image that brings to mind a scene in Euphoria where the show’s protagonist goes through a depressive binge of a reality dating show until she becomes physically ill. Allison seems keenly aware of how vignettes such as this one work as vivid descriptors and cultural shorthand for deeper, darker experiences. Color Theory is filled with this kind of unassuming-but-knife-sharp writing; it’s these moments that make the album feel like a significant step beyond its predecessor.

The seven-minute “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” drifts into the sound of twinkling shoegaze guitars like a dream sequence in a movie, and “Royal Screw Up”, an acoustic track with cascading, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, finds Allison deeming herself “the princess of screwing up”, held captive in a prison of her own making. That song, as well as a handful of other moments on Color Theory, reminds me of the surreal and fascinating Twitter account Sad in Melbourne, which features upsetting anonymous declarations of sadness by anyone in the city who asks for the password. That is not intended as a sledge: there’s something simultaneously diaristic and self-aware about many of Allison’s lyrics that feels typical of her generation, so often defined by conscious and unfiltered sharing on the internet for both humorous and cathartic value. It is plain and poetic at the same time. Art does not have to be – and often should not be – relatable, but it is exciting to hear Allison write in a way that resembles how people, and young people especially, write about their own sadness.

Allison seems aware, at least on some level, of the strange universality of how she expresses herself. “In our generation, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety based around the future; it’s getting scarier, for everybody,” she explains over the phone. “The Earth does not like us as much as it used to. There’s a lot to be afraid of.” These anxieties occasionally translate into moments darker and more discomforting than on any previous Soccer Mommy record; the references to self-harm here are no longer oblique and witty.

While not for the faint-hearted, these kinds of troubling lyrics do contribute to the larger, more resonant image Allison is painting. It may not have been her intention, but Color Theory is a vibrant, no-holds-barred portrait of a generation born in turmoil and drowning in political tumult, without the resources to cope. It may be informed by a detached, dreamlike vision, but Color Theory is rarely less than bracing.

 

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA An Oneiric Reality

Brunswick Street Gallery, Melbourne, until March 17

CULTURE 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN

Venues throughout Sydney, March 14—June 8

MULTIMEDIA Rite of Passage

QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, until May 10

VISUAL ART Pulse Perspectives

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until June 29

CINEMA Melbourne Queer Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Melbourne, March 12-23

VISUAL ART Margaret Olley

Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, until March 28

LITERATURE Melbourne Art Book Fair

NGV International, Melbourne, March 13-15

THEATRE Bar’d Work: As You Like It

Bars throughout Sydney, March 13-15

CLASSICAL Vivaldi’s Venice

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne, until March 8

City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 11 and 13

THEATRE Unleash the Beast / La bête de scène

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, March 9-14

INSTALLATION Lumnarium: Daedalum

Barr Smith Lawns, Adelaide, until March 15

Last chance

CULTURE All About Women

Sydney Opera House, until March 8

MUSIC WOMADelaide

Botanic Park, Adelaide, until March 9

THEATRE Irish Mythen

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, March 7

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Discerning palette".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.