Four years ago, when Sophie Allison set out on the journey that’s made her one of indie rock’s brightest stars, she did it simply: just a quiet voice in a small room, singing melodies you couldn’t ignore. She’s come a long way since then, as you can hear on her new album, Color Theory, where she often sounds like an alt-rock heartbreak queen who tripped and fell into a space-time portal on her way to the 1995 Clueless soundtrack, chug-a-lug guitar buzz and all. As satisfying as it is to hear the full-band experience kick into high gear, though, Color Theory is at its most powerful when Allison goes back to the fundamentals that first set her apart.
Take “Royal Screw Up,” the sparkling jewel of sadness that crowns the album’s depression-themed first third. The first two minutes are just Allison’s voice and an acoustic guitar, laying out her deepest insecurities without flinching: “I am a liar,” she begins, and it goes on from there. Her pop-hook instincts keep the song from sounding like 10,000 other bedroom-folk laments, as her voice in the verses leaps up and falls back down with the expert phrasing of someone who’s learned all the right lessons from Taylor Swift’s early hits. There’s precedent for it, too, in Soccer Mommy songs like 2018’s “Wildflowers,” where she put so much feeling into her melodies that little other instrumentation was needed.
This time, the arrangement grows to include an understated string section and subtle canned applause, but the song’s magic is in that melody. Think for a second about the level of songwriterly focus it takes to turn out something like “Royal Screw Up” in 20 minutes, as she’s said she did. “I am fake-it-til-you-make-it in a can,” Allison sings — a self-deprecating jab that might well be how she feels sometimes, but one that’s flat-out absurd in the context of a song this unfakeably real and true.
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