Proudly carries on the tradition of The Shins and St. Vincent.
Sophie Allison describes her music as “chill but kinda sad.” And that massively paints over the depths of somberness of Soccer Mommy. Maybe that’s just the millennial way of doing things, having ironic, jokey posts on Facebook that point to unbridled depression. Thankfully, Clean isn’t that sort of cringey. Instead it proudly carries on the tradition of The Shins and St. Vincent, producing fun, rocking or relaxed indie-pop tunes that turn absolutely crushing the second you let a modicum of their emotion in your heart.
It’s late night music, ready to soundtrack any number of Friday Night Lights style emotional break downs. The more contemplative side of emo runs strong through Allison’s veins, and the autumnal swirl of American Football’s debut album is all over Clean. Both Mitski and Julien Baker must be pleased to see another whip-sharp songwriter using her talents for sadness rather than evil.
Mitski and Baker are the two easiest reference points, but Allison owns a different moped out flair, more predicated on ‘90s alternative rock with Pavement and Garbage looming larger rather than Mitski’s baroque stylings or Baker’s country twang. Allison documents countless failed parties, dead-end relationships and the sort of emotions that can only rise during the late teens and early twenties. All of Clean might be beautiful; if, as James Murphy once said, it “makes you want to feel like a teenager,” then Allison reminds you of “the feelings of a real life emotional teenager/ Then you think again.”
Jealousy and envy dominate her lyrics. A looping “I wanna be like you” is the center of the chugging rocker “Cool,” with Allison unfavorably comparing herself to everyone in sight. “Take your bottle/ Pour the cup/ I thought that would fill me up” she sings on the devastating “Flaw.” She constantly describes scenes of facades, pretending her heart ain’t broke but desperately trying to find drugs, booze, sex or music to distract her and move her away from the consuming dread. It’s rare that Allison sings about herself in a singular form. She’s always next to the boy she wants, and he’s next to the girl she wants to be.
Mini Sleater-Kinney ripper “Last Girl” bursts into the stratosphere with “I want to be like your last girl/ She’s looks that drive you wild…/ She would be so nice to wake up to” over a flurry of spiraling guitars. No matter what Allison does, she’s constantly measuring herself short to a cascade of women that she thinks are prettier, smarter, better than her. When one guy does actually does just want to spend time with her, she wonders “why?” out loud and shrinks back from his advances. Not because she doesn’t want his companionship, but she can’t understand how he’s even interested. Few albums in recent memory have been this upfront and plain with their anxiety. No need to muddy it with abstractions, just get to the meat of the depression.
But she does strike a defiant stance on a few occasions, and it is gloriously cathartic. “Your Dog” has Allison proclaiming “I don’t want to be your fucking dog/ Your little pet/ Your baby girl” over a contained, but furious stomp that would make Shirley Manson proud. “I’m not a prop for you to use/ When you’re lonely or confused/ I want a love that lets me breathe/ I’ve been choking on your leash,” she sings on the breath-taking final chorus, a moment of sheer strength in a tumultuous sea of self-doubt.
“Blossom (Wasting All My Time)” also has Allison taking further steps to self-healing and care. “I can’t see you blossom in the future that I’m dreamin’” she sings over a swell of humming synths. She later claims she’s found someone who will grow with her, but she seems to actually be talking about herself. The music blossoms in beauty as she shakes off her doubts and embraces her own need for change. Violins begin to rise, a chiming piano joins a smoky bass and she gained a brief sense of clarity. There’s a tendency in the broader pop culture to see the loves of teens and young adults as charming, ephemeral things that should be enjoyed rather than longed over. But these events shape, not just our views on love, but our very beings if we let them. “Blossom” captures the moments of heartbreak and growth better than any song in years, nailing the confusion, rapture and newness of these emotions. It’s easy enough to go to a logical angle and say she’ll move on soon enough, there will be others, but for this splendid, obliterating song, she wallows fully in her grief and emerges better on the other side. “Blossom” isn’t just Clean or Soccer Mommy at her best, it also encapsulates the biting memories she sends through her music. Reminders of how quickly our hearts evolve and how painful that experience must be. Chill, no. Sad, yes. But add “stunning” to that list as well.