The Lowdown: Color Theory is Sophie Allison’s follow-up to Clean, the 2018 record that brought the Nashville singer-songwriter better known as Soccer Mommy to the forefront of indie rock’s radar. On her sophomore album, Allison turns away from external concerns such as romantic relationships and plunges inward, charting deeply personal waters with the cascading guitars and lilting vocals that have become her hallmarks, fuzzed by a new, glitching, and glimmering industrial edge. Color Theory is permeated by themes of accumulation, gradual spiraling, and downward motion, be it circling the drain, sinking, or drowning. But where accumulation can often feel like a build to a grand, orchestrated finale, Allison uses it instead to create the feeling over the course of this album of something coming apart and being laid bare.
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The Good: For a while now, Allison has been channeling her music through a specific power over aesthetics that gives it a force all its own. She’s an indie rock artist whose versatility is often understated: She can do (and has done) darkly foreboding, longing, admiring, outright creepy, joyous, angry, forlorn, and everything in between. She can write a song as the monster under your bed, the half-innocent lover, or the loner girl at school, among other things — and yet each time she explores a new feeling, the music still feels distinctly her. She has an authentic style that feeds (pun intended) into all of her work.
She takes this power to new depths in Color Theory, which is organized into three distinct color-themes: blue, representing depression; yellow, for physical and mental illness; and grey, for darkness and loss. The colors on Color Theory’s cover are muted, merged, and blurred — which is just how the album sounds. Each song on the album embraces the atmosphere chosen for it, from the ruptured, fractured bass of “crawling in my skin” to the keening guitar and intense sense of loss in “yellow is the color of her eyes,” marooned amid a hazy atmosphere. “night swimming” sounds submerged, like night swimming, moonlit and motion-captured. Early in the album, “royal screw up” captivates the listener by slowly building into a blurry canvas of stripped-back self-sabotage — a theme that returns later in the distressed guitars of “lucy,” a compellingly skewed prism of inner turmoil and one of the most intricately catchy tracks on the record.
All the while, Allison disrupts our traditional associations with color theory, finding warmth at times in self and solitude and tension in traditionally warm colors like yellow and red. The album reaches its conclusion with the heartbreakingly forthright “gray light”, a track with static looming around its edges, threatening to lull the song away from the listener until it finally reaches its abrupt close.
The Bad: For an album where it’s clear Allison is trying out new things with her sound, one almost wishes at times she would have taken things even further. Color Theory is a very fluid move from Clean and Allison’s other previous work — its fuller sound and added industrial tweaks are unmistakable, but it’s still not overdrawn with instrumentation. The balance is cohesive, but it also doesn’t leave room for many departures. Dividing the album into three central color-themes was an intriguing and well-carried-out artistic decision, but it also created opportunity for more drastic variation between these themes than the album feels like it completely explored.
The Verdict: In the end, Color Theory is deliberately neither victorious nor defeated — it isn’t about a journey from one distinct end to another, where by the close of it the difficult themes have been surmounted. Allison is wise to avoid this — she spends the energy of this album instead on Pyrrhic victories, splintered and slippery melodies that trip and blur convincingly into one another. She communicates the travails and confrontations of a journey taken alone — because all personal journeys are undertaken at least partly alone, no matter how many friends and family surround us. On “royal screw up”, Allison sings, “I want an answer/ To all my problems,” but she knows this is an impractical ask, whether it comes from herself or from her listeners. Instead, she offers a deeply internal side to her world, buoyed by a production style rich with grains and echoes.
Essential Tracks: “bloodstream”, “circle the drain”, and “lucy”