Indie

Soccer Mommy Has Mastered The Art Of Haunting

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In her famous poem “Lady Lazarus,” Sylvia Plath writes, “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” It was penned in 1963 and published posthumously in 1965. Centering on her two suicide attempts, she summons the image of a “peanut-crunching crowd” watching her perform a “big strip tease”; she’s removing her soul from her body, becoming bare, empty of life. But it’s as seductive as it is dark, while also flirting with humor and engaging in nursery rhyme: “Gentlemen, ladies, / These are my hands / My knees.” The voyeurism is simultaneously disturbing and bewitching. In many ways, just reading it feels wrong, as if the reader is in the peanut-crunching crowd also, entertained by her unraveling.

So, it is not that much of a shocker when Plath is invoked on Soccer Mommy’s unsettling new record Sometimes, Forever. On the pained ballad “Darkness Forever,” Sophie Allison makes a casual reference to her notorious suicide: “Head in the oven / Didn’t sound so crazy / My brain was burning / Hot to the touch.” Lyrics about misery and despair paired with off-kilter ambiances make for a heavy experience, but it’s balanced with enough Plath-like awareness and wit that it becomes hypnotic. She doesn’t burden the listener with her lamentations; she evokes uneasiness and captivation, sending a chill down their spine in one moment and then making them laugh in the next. “Sophie finds magical ways to complicate her bubblegum melodies with a subtle weirdness: a twisted chord, a bent texture, some dark comedy,” album producer Daniel Lopatin told Pitchfork. “It’s addictive to listen to all that sweet and sour stuff she has going on, so I just tried to amplify that.”

Essentially, Allison has mastered the art of haunting, which is a bit of a pivot after 2018’s endearing breakthrough Clean and its intimate 2020 follow-up Color Theory. The lead single “Shotgun” proved this departure into darkness immediately; the sly bassline and her detached vocals in minor key concoct an eerie atmosphere, and the chorus likens love to a weapon, but on the second verse she sings, “Cold beer and ice cream is all we keep / The only things we really need.” It doesn’t even feel like a moment of levity, necessarily; it feels strangely prophetic and clever.

“It’s about this sense of fear and the overhanging of something bad because it’s about the beginning of falling in love — the really exciting feeling, but also you don’t know where it’s going,” Allison explains about “Shotgun” over the phone in early June. “But that kind of sense of just giving your heart over to someone — it feels not too scary, just intense in general. I compare it to uppers — this kind of sense of heart racing, on edge, never knowing what’s going to happen next. There’s this uncertainty and nervousness and fear. But it’s also just supposed to be about that fun feeling, that excitement.”

Panic and exhilaration become inextricable from each other, much like pleasure and pain. Masochism bleeds onto the bubbling shoegaze ballad “With U”: “But I’ll take the pain / Feel it every day / Just to have you look at me,” she admits. In “Still,” the bleak closer that is confessional to an almost risky extent, Allison lulls, “I cut a piece out of my thigh / And felt my heart go sky diving.” It resembles the opening lines of Plath’s poem “Cut”: “What a thrill— / My thumb instead of an onion.” The singer’s publicist warns: “You may notice that the lyrics to ‘Still’ are challenging to read.” The admission of — or even just allusion to — serious self-destruction does not come without awkward, uncomfortable consequences, but that sacrifice is part of what makes it powerful. In many ways, acknowledging self-inflicted pain and the complicated nature of it is incredibly difficult, let alone exploring it through art in front of millions of strangers. It’s brave. “Gentlemen, ladies, / These are my hands / My knees.”

It’s also tricky because listeners are, at the end of the day, consumers, not unlike a peanut-crunching crowd while Allison is laying herself bare on the stage, giving away parts of herself in a way that’s not unlike being disembodied. Sometimes, Forever confronts this weird dynamic of the music industry, and capitalism in general: “I’m tired of the money / And all of the taking at me / I’m barely a person / Mechanically working,” she deadpans on “Unholy Affliction.” “When it comes to artistry, there’s a strive for perfection and for success and all of these things, but all of that comes with playing the game,” she explains. “You can’t just make this perfect album and pop it on the internet and have this amazing rollout. Like, it doesn’t happen if you’re not already hugely successful.” To avoid feeling bought, she places less value on photoshoots and interviews and tries to only care about the art, but “Unholy Affliction” is evidence that this conflict inevitably seeps into her consciousness and her creations.

Not only are the lyrical decisions on this record brave, but the sonic ones as well. It digs deeper into the grunge sound that her past two studio albums flirted with. The experimentation, with the help of Lopatin, is showcased best on the aforementioned “Unholy Affliction” that skids and rattles, as well as on the meandering “Newdemo,” both of which have a sort of brooding feeling that’s interspersed with sputtering, supernatural synthesizers. When asked about what influenced her to go in this direction she mentions Black Sabbath, with a laugh of humility. “They are so heavy and doomy, and it can be slow and sludgy,” she says. “It feels heavy all the time, but it’s not like a thousand guitars or this crazy shredding. It’s really evil.”

This horror movie-like aura is the perfect backdrop for her words. Like Plath, her lines are at their most striking when as concise as possible: “It’s darkness forever / A cold sinking ocean / I want to feel the / Warm of release,” she sings on the mystical “Darkness Forever.” Throughout the 11 tracks, there are fragmented recollections of having sex in the backseat of a car, seeing a ghost, driving into a sunset with hopes of being swallowed by it, and feeling emotions so intense that it’s like being hit with a tidal wave. Revelations manifest in these unforgettable images, especially on “Newdemo”: “Sometimes I dream there’s a gate to a garden / That only the earth could break through / But what is a dream but a light in the darkness / A lie that you wish would come true,” she croons.

About the meaning of that song, Allison says it’s about feeling really low and dealing with cynical thoughts like, “What’s the point of hoping for things that won’t happen or clinging to nice thoughts that aren’t real?” She is quick to add, “But also, there is a point.” Sometimes, Forever would not exist without dreams and hopes for something better. Fantasizing is a kind of survival. In “A Birthday Present,” Plath writes: “Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity. / Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam.”

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