I should probably confirm this with a closer read of her Instagram page, but from what I gather Sophie Allison isn’t the sort of songwriter whose most ardent fans beg her to flatten them like a steamroller, stomp over them in spiked heels, or slash their hearts into bloodied pulp.
Don’t get me wrong—Sunday night’s Soccer Mommy show at the First Avenue Mainroom delivered a full 90 minutes or so of exquisitely crafted bummers. But it did not offer the promise of heart-wrenched obliteration that so many listeners vocally and hyperbolically demand from the newest crop of melancholy young female songwriters. A Soccer Mommy set is ideal for a downhearted sway, though I also saw more than one young woman bop her head side to side like a ticking clock and one even try out a not wholly inappropriate dance. This was the comfort of being sad, as one terminally sad guy once put it.
In her songs, the Nashville-based Allison treats that sadness as a fact of life rather than life itself, an unwelcome incursion rather than a spiritual achievement, and the three lead tracks from Soccer Mommy’s 2020 album, Color Theory, which were also the first three songs the band played, set that tone.The prematurely nostalgic “bloodstream” casts back to childhood summer nights while monitoring for the faintest stirrings of depression: “I know it’s waiting there, swimming through my bloodstream.” As the title suggests, “circle the drain” picks up on that same theme, and I hope you didn’t expect “royal screw up” to lighten the mood. She hadn’t even gotten to “crawling in my skin” yet.
And then, Allison promised some “old ones” from way back in 2018—can anyone even remember that long ago? She dipped back into her breakthrough album Clean for two obsessively envious tracks: “Last Girl,” about how hot her boyfriend’s ex is, and “Cool,” about how she isn’t that. (And I shouldn’t be too snarky, as she did reach as far as 2016 for “Henry,” recorded when she was still a teen, and for a 24-year-old five years really is an eternity.) On the older songs, you can hear her seeking explanations and causes for how she feels rather than looking inside, as she does on the new material.
It was 2018, in fact, the last time I saw Soccer Mommy at Bryant-Lake Bowl, and the band was still gelling. For starters, Julian Powell’s guitar was off-balance then, jutting out from the songs in ways you couldn’t quite explain away as a bad mix. But the four-piece that now backs Allison (including a third guitarist who doubles on keyboards) is a road-tested band, building up breathlessly to climaxes, slashing past her vocals with cross-cut guitar work. If something about the angle of Allison’s melodies on Clean suggested ’90s alt-rock without quite calling any specific performer to mind, working consistently with a full band has helped her find her own particular style.
Casual in T-shirt and black jeans, Allison wan’t much for onstage chatter—even when she asked for “crowd participation,” she basically wanted people to applaud her band members as she introduced them. But when the music was on—as it mostly was, though the night did threaten to drift away about two-thirds of the way through with the atmospheric “gray light” and “night swimming”—that was enough to maintain intimacy as long as you allowed yourself to focus.
That was especially the case when the band left the stage and Allison performed a two-song solo set of “Still Clean,” which strays from chord to chiming chord to settle on the recognition that “I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” and a Slowdive cover, “Dagger.” The latter made sense given the shoegazey wash her band’s guitars have sometimes taken on, while doubling as a nice fake out because Slowdive’s not the part of the ’90s her songwriting style gets compared to in reviews.
The band returned for “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” the second song of the night that mentioned being “blue,” and there was something about that quaint songwriting euphemism that softened the song’s blow, even as it hesitantly progressed in the way depression makes you shuffle around your apartment.
Allison and crew returned for a two-song encore that began with the bad-boyfriend-lashing “Your Dog.” (Fun fact: Because I have rude neighbors, I change the lyric “I don’t want to be your fucking dog” to “I don’t want to hear your fucking dog” and sing it around the house when I’m annoyed.) Then night ended with the breathy “Scorpio Rising,” about hooking up with someone you suspect would rather be with someone else.
By then, something about that downward tug of Allison’s voice, the unflagging midtempo of her songs, and maybe the first early sunset after our return to Standard Time had taken its toll on one aging observer. I wasn’t weepy, or torn apart, just a little hollow inside, with unbidden regrets poking in from the margins of my consciousness.
I scrambled around for mental causes. The realization that feelings don’t ebb much between 24 and 51? That this music could have been made when I was the same age, and I could have been one of those kids in the crowd for whom the sadness felt so much fresher? But no, I think it was just the effect of how these songs are structured: The music of Soccer Mommy never rises and purges, it just gnaws and burrows, scratching at the roots of its depression, honest in its scrutiny.
circle the drain
royal screw up
crawling in my skin
yellow is the color of her eyes