“You see he does not believe I am sick!” wrote Charlotte Perkins Stetson in her seminal 1892 shortse story The Yellow Wallpaper. Suffering from a severe bout of postpartum depression, the narrator, loosely based on Stetson herself, is prescribed a summer-long period of bed rest. But as the story progresses, it’s obvious things are a bit off: The bed is nailed to the floor, there are bars in the windows and “rings and things in the walls.” Time passes slowly as the narrator focuses on the titular yellow wallpaper, which is “repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering [sic] unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.” She eventually hallucinates visions of a woman creeping in the wallpaper itself, and by the story’s end—when the couple and their children are set to leave—the narrator has gone mad, believing herself to be the nonexistent woman in the wall.
When Sophie Allison began writing her sophomore release under the moniker Soccer Mommy, she remembered reading The Yellow Wallpaper years before and connected with the material. The short story influenced some of the resulting songs, but the album itself took the form of three distinct colors, or “pillars,” as she describes them: blue (for sadness), yellow (paranoia and sickness) and gray (darkness and aging).
She explains that her anxieties felt like “high tension ones that are more madness, which is what I was picturing: Old, 1800s madness in women was what I was feeling like and experiencing, which really made me think about The Yellow Wallpaper. That was a connection I made mentally with these feelings that I was having.”
It’s particularly easy to hear Stetson’s effect on the song “crawling in my skin.” “Seeing black / Seep through the cracks / Pouring out of the walls / I watch it creep and crawl,” Allison sings over spritely arpeggiated guitar, even borrowing The Yellow Wallpaper’s use of the word “creep.” But Allison throws in a modern twist, equating the protagonist’s hysteria with modern feelings of depression: “Through my room / But I can’t move / Sedate me all the time / Don’t leave me with my mind,” she croons. The references are subtle.
Maybe there are small signs of pre-feminist late-19th century literary works in color theory, but Soccer Mommy’s newest album isn’t some heady batch of songs written in a fabled ivory tower. color theory is a very human look at relationships, dealing with the sickness of loved ones and the unbridled happiness we feel as children and slowly lose as we age. Allison’s early-2000s vibes recall the best of adult contemporary radio staples like Michelle Branch or Mandy Moore, resulting in an emotionally heavy and consistently gorgeous record that even has an interesting Easter egg: “Trying all the time to stay clean” is a verse from album opener “bloodstream” as well as a nod to her debut LP.
“It’s less a reference to the title of Clean and more the idea that was Clean,” she says. “I feel like the whole idea that I had behind Clean was this idea of trying to be clean of someone, to be clean and pure again after an experience with someone, and try to wipe them off of you. That lyric references that idea of trying to stay pure. When I wrote it, I was like, ‘This is reflecting back to the same idea that Clean is.’”
The Nashville-based musician uses the word “reflect” quite a bit throughout our interview. “Reflection” yields lyrical inspiration (“I feel like a lot of [the songs] more hold fragments of people than are about a specific when it comes to relationships. It’s more about how I’ve felt in situations than about what someone else did. It’s more of a self-reflection.”) as well as her thought process behind releasing music at all (“I think the whole point of me writing a record is that I’ll go through this reckoning and end in not necessarily resolution, but a reflection on the situation and grow from it a little bit”). She describes color theory’s major theme through the same lens, too: “looking back to youth and seeing myself happy and seeing this reflection that’s different.”
Reflection also plays a role in when she knows an album is complete. color theory’s opening and closing scenes are both from her childhood: running around the yard as a small child and watching her mother drown in sickness.
“‘bloodstream’ was an early song I wrote, and ‘gray light’ was one of the last ones I wrote,” she says. “Which is kind of the same as Clean actually—‘Still Clean’ and ‘Wildflowers’ were on opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s always this thing where I write and it progresses, and it comes to terms somewhere toward the ending. It makes a lot of realizations and then reflects on it at the end. That’s how I know I’m done with an album: getting to a point where the songs I’m writing are reflections on what I was talking about six months ago. That’s how I know, because I’m coming back full circle.”
But don’t think that Allison’s emphasis on self-reflection means color theory is simply a solo effort—far from it. Her sophomore album showcases a fuller, brighter side of her music, owed in large part to recording as a full band.
“I think we’ve gotten our thing down as a band; I think we’ve found the things that are us,” Allison says. “The last record, I didn’t really know what we were supposed to sound like, and I now I know what we’re supposed to sound like. I just feel like I wrote a lot more parts for this. Everyone had ideas for things that they could throw in and it made it really cool.”
That means there are a few surprises throughout: a bruising guitar solo at the end of album opener “bloodstream,” a guitar outro that recalls The Beatles on seven-minute epic “yellow is the color of her eyes,” dark bedroom-pop and a synthetic vinyl scratch on “gray light.” Soccer Mommy experiment quite a bit on color theory without anything ever feeling out of place, a testament to Allison’s sublime songwriting skills. The record plays like a grand statement, one where every lyric seems labored over for years, yet somehow feels unforced.
That’s the charm of Soccer Mommy: Every song that appears simple and every lyric that seems straightforward is anything but. Perhaps that’s because Allison’s writing method is minimal (“When I’m writing songs, I don’t forget them, really. Occasionally I’ll write down the lyrics, but not most of the time, I just remember them.”), or the way her voice sounds calming even when it isn’t. color theory sounds effortless even when it’s clearly not. Here, Allison fully understands what Soccer Mommy is and isn’t, and they’re blossoming into one of the most consistently exciting bands around.
Revisit Soccer Mommy’s 2018 Paste session: