Is it better to be the one obsessed or the object of obsession? More specifically, is it preferable to be vulnerable in your own adoration or the object of another’s unmeasured affection? In one case you are full of love to give – love to feel – and risk being hurt without reciprocity. In the other you are the recipient of, and thus responsible for, someone else’s feelings, and are almost certain to cause harm. There are no absolutes when dealing with infatuation; how you feel invariably depends on the feelings of someone else. Those intricacies of attachment are the focus of Clean, Sophie Allison’s long-awaited debut full-length as Soccer Mommy, and in navigating its author’s soul-searching by way of external validation the album proves itself worthy of your own obsession.
Allison had an instant breakout stunner with her For Young Hearts EP, and then a rising star-in-the-making with her more fleshed out follow-up Collection. Clean, however, represents Allison's clearest expression of the Soccer Mommy aesthetic, which is simultaneously intimate and detached, drawing you into her singular gravity like the "cool" girls she idolizes across the album. Sonically, the project has evolved from the hushed acoustics of her earliest work to hi-definition widescreen; you can hear the production this time rather than the lack thereof. And lyrically the record is the strongest showcase yet of her skillful storytelling, which gets lost longingly in the little details while never losing sight of the larger narrative. The world she builds isn't a big one, and as a whole Clean hardly covers more ground than that of bedrooms, schoolyards, and desolate sidewalks. But within that limited space, Allison traverses entire landscapes of emotional territory.
There isn’t a linear storyline that runs through Clean, but it is distinctly fixated on Allison’s struggles with dormant self-doubt that both drive her relationships with others and prevent them from ever getting off the ground. Her insecurity most directly translates into seeking the approval of people with whom she hopes to get close. But these desires are not always romantic, or at least not explicitly. The sparkling “Cool,” for example, finds Allison at the altar of the dissociating heartbreakers at school, the girls you don’t so much want to be friends with than physically embody. She sings of wanting “to be that cool” for herself, but you get the sense what she really wants is to be as unaffected -- to manifest their universal disinterest that from the outside appears to serve as a protective shell against the world. “She won’t ever love no boy,” Allison praises, like it’s the most important quality one could have.
Yet throughout Clean, Allison continues to search for herself by keeping time with others. She’s at her most conflicted on album-standout “Flaw.” Over sparse, almost hesitant acoustic noodling, she realizes the folly of investing in yourself by putting your efforts into someone else – in “thinking love would be this strong.” But she’s also unable to come to terms with the fact that she misplaced her bet: “I choose to blame it all on you/ Cause I don’t like the truth/ That none of this was you.” “Flaw” reckons with the resentment that follows giving yourself completely to a person who never gave any of himself back, but it also digs deeper into Allison’s frustration with having put her hope in being whole on another person in the first place. A majority of these songs find the singer offering all she is to others to prove to herself it can be enough for someone; or as she puts it on the tempered “Skin,” to be “a puzzle piece trying to fit just right/ So I could be someone who’s stuck inside your mind.”
Tragically, Allison’s efforts are often met in return with little more than glances directed away from where she’s sitting, towards appealing passerbys idealized as “bubbly and sweet like Coca-Cola.” When Allison venerates another woman on Clean, this time penning an ode to a boyfriend’s “Last Girl,” she does so not in jealousy but admiration. “She’s so sweet/ And she’s so pretty/ Even more than me,” she intones with wonder that mirrors the shimmering swing of the composition. The comparison is less for his sake than her own, implicitly outlining the question of if she could ever be as worthy of another’s attention? But his answer isn’t nearly as important as her own, one that gradually reveals itself in the cracks between the album’s torn edges and fractured guitar hymns.
Yet she thankfully offers us at least one resounding expression of her hard-earned self-affirmation. While much of Clean finds Allison nursing malignant attractions that claw at her like the lovers who’d rather rip her apart for scraps than experience her holistically, she’s also clearly unafraid to bite back when necessary, as she does thrillingly on lead single “Your Dog.” Seething over her treatment as a badge for an insignificant other to parade around, she refuses a misanthropic dude’s attempts to characterize her as an indie pixie dream girl who will substantiate him simply by existing in label as his girlfriend. “I’m not a prop for you to use/ When you’re lonely or confused,” she roars over the strongest earworm of 2018 thus far.
As rewarding as that conviction feels, it’s fleeting across the rest of her journey. “I was only what you wanted for a little while,” Allison repeats like a mantra – or maybe a reflective warning – on album opener “Still Clean.” That same melody returns as a reprise at the end of the final track “Wildflowers,” as though asking if any of what she once felt that eventually faded was worth the bother at all? Clean comes to a close without a direct conclusion, but leaves enough indications along the way that rather than needing to be obsessed or obsessed with, Allison’s arrived at a place of knowing her own worth independent of anyone’s assessment. Nevertheless, Clean makes it clear that by all metrics she’s more than worth your time.
**Stream Clean now over at NPR. **