What you learn from listening to Clean, the debut album by Soccer Mommy out today on Fat Possum Records, is that Sophie Allison is very good with words. She has the ability to compress big sentiment into plain phrases: “Only what you wanted for a little while”, “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog”, “None of this was you”. Her knack for making all-consuming feelings or realisations – betrayal, rejection, jealousy – seem factual and unremarkable can be disconcerting; she somehow crams The Big Stuff – the shit that defines us at the time and puts us in therapy later – into short refrains. Allison appears to know if you can step outside of these, you can say what they really are, thus breaking their spell. That’s what is so beguiling about her as an artist, and Clean as a project.
That’s not to say it’s all straight up and down: as a lyricist, she also has a gift for making observations which, placed inside her songs, hang in the air with the glitter of nostalgia. The scenarios she singles out allow the past to glisten (“I took you swimming by my house / We skinny dip and rip my flowers out”), in the way that rose-tinted memories tend to. Allison, however, comes from a place of knowledge: she knows they’re rose tinted, and her one-liners are often delivered as a reflection on that. The combination of both sides of her songwriting style – the ability to capture the fleeting, while also stating the universal – makes Clean powerful.
Foregrounding the words only, however, does a disservice to Clean’s accomplished musicality. It’s a sonically rich record and difficult to totally categorise, as dream-pop choruses mesh with slacker-style riffs and, on some tracks, frill free acoustic musing. On second song “Cool,” Allison declares her admiration for a girl who eats boys for breakfast, while echoing guitars send a hazy weed cloud to loom over proceedings. By contrast, on album highlight “Flaw,” which comes just two tracks later, she looks inwards. The song feels private, as though it should only exist between the walls of a young woman’s bedroom, with its unembellished vocals, spare piano phrases and simply strummed guitar, all of which swell like feelings in your chest over the song’s duration.
Allison’s breathy, prettily imperfect soprano guides us through the album’s twists and turns, uniting the gleaming, honest world conjured by the lyrics with the aesthetic grounding of the sound. Her voice has a movable quality, like it’d shake if you blew at it, its dandelion feathers floating away on the tiny gust. That it can be heard so clearly here only adds to the record’s intimate tone, no doubt bred from the feel of the early home recordings which marked Soccer Mommy’s beginnings, and which producer Gabe Wax has done well to retain for the album.
What demarcates Clean from the material that went before it, however, is its cohesiveness. On opener “Still Clean,” the chorus is uncomplicated – eight words repeated. I mentioned it at the top of this piece: “Only what you wanted for a little while.” It’s an impactful lyric which packs a lot of truth and regret into its few seconds, accompanied by a simple guitar line. Though Allison doesn’t sing those words again, the riff we hear alongside them on “Still Clean” comes again at the end of final track “Wildflowers.” Building on this sense of circularity, as “Wildflowers” begins, there’s also a call back to the instrumentation of the earlier “Flaw.”
Clean, then, is rounded off by these aural self-references, which in some way inform its emotional meaning. There’s the overwhelming impression that the record was not only created to exorcise experiences, but that it has future use too. It’s kind of a sonic representation of the way that we learn lessons about hurt throughout our lives, and recall them at any hint of similar pain later on. In lots of ways Clean is about memories: the gilded times we remember, and the unfussy reflections we’re forced to make on them so we don’t forget the bad parts too.
To hear this album is to recognise the importance of using the things that have happened to you as armour. That’s exemplified on “Wildflowers,” where the repeated sounds of those two earlier songs (which, in their sorrow, perhaps form the album’s emotional peaks, along with the climactic “Scorpio Rising”) feel like the musical equivalent of the emotional warnings that only we can give ourselves based on what we have learned in the past. Like talismans around Allison’s and her listeners’ necks, they ward off damaging people, and tough situations, and the undesirable feelings that both evoke.
Allison’s carefully crafted storytelling, and the romantic sound she imbues it with coalesce across the album, showing that she has, quite rightfully, risen from the strong roots of her bedroom recordings. In doing so, she has not only made one of the best debut albums that this year will surely offer, but also a living, breathing document of how people deal with pain; of how we keep ourselves clean.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.