“Circle the Drain,” an anthemically morose new jam from Sophie Allison, the 22-year-old Nashville indie-pop star who records as Soccer Mommy, celebrates a phenomenon she describes as “useless sadness.” A sweet melancholy all the more piercing for there being nothing and no one to immediately blame it on. “Things feel that low sometimes,” she sings amid gorgeous swirls of watery guitars, wrapping up an aching first verse loaded with phrases like the cold hard ground and a feeling that boils in my brain and I’m wobbling out on a wire. “Even when everything is fine.”
The chorus, as she recently explained on the Song Exploder podcast, aims for the downcast-but-upbeat duality—“It’s this weird mixture of really sad, and it also makes you want to scream it a little bit”—Allison cherishes in late ’90s–early ’00s hits like Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” or Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun.” (Song Exploder host Hrishikesh Hirway helpfully interjects that “Torn” came out in 1997, the year Allison was born, and now I, personally, have something to blame my sadness on.) When “Circle the Drain” finally detonates the way any truly outstanding pop song must, indie or otherwise, the catharsis is real, and by that point desperately necessary.
“It starts to make you feel like, ‘Oh my god, how many more times can I do this?’” Allison added of the vague but stultifying melancholy that inspired her. “‘I’m, like, losing it a little bit right now. I don’t know how many times I can pick myself back up.’” For now, though, just one more time will do.
Soccer Mommy’s new album Color Theory, released in late February and a darker spin on her radiantly defiant 2018 breakout Clean, keeps hitting peaks like this, fueled by increasingly specific sources of anguish, starting with her mother’s ongoing 10-year battle with cancer. “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done,” Allison sings on the slow-burning centerpiece “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes”; the chorus to the shattered closer “Gray Light” ends on the line “I’m watching my mother drown.” That even these lowest-of-the-low moments—nestled amid hookier but even denser squalls like “Crawling in My Skin” and “Lucy”—feel cathartic and somehow comforting is a testament to Allison’s extraordinary ability to wield sadness, useless and otherwise, as a weapon that might help drive the sadness itself back.
Two great albums released Friday keep that same energy with brasher guitars, sharper wails, and a likewise atom-bomb-bright flair for vivid melancholia. “I’m waiting on you / To make it worth the while / That I’m stuck here / I’m so stuck here,” roars Snarls singer-guitarist Chlo White at the bombastic conclusion of “Walk in the Woods,” the leadoff track on Burst, the debut album from Columbus, Ohio’s preeminent “emo glitter pop” band, the glitter being, of course, a crucial element of the bombast.
Snarls songs, from the crunchy waltz “Marbles” (as in “I think I lost my marbles”) to an even crunchier mega-cathartic ballad called “All of This Will End,” are powered by the wailing dual vocals of White and singer-bassist Riley Hall, who find solidarity in the face of fury and crushing anguish, whether there’s an easily identifiable target for those emotions (“You / Your stupid hat / I can’t get over you,” begins the power-jangling “What’s It Take”) or not. White, while chatting recently with her rad local alt-weekly Columbus Alive, explained her perspective this way:
“It makes me cry sometimes,” White said. “There’s this one particular scene in Family Guy where it’s 2 a.m., and Meg is just laying in her bed with her headphones and an iPod Nano, just bawling all by herself—softly, silently crying. That’s me. Late at night, when I’m real in my feels, that’s how I get. It kind of makes me feel better. ... It’s made me realize that I’ve grown past this thing, so I can now grow past this next thing I’m going through. ... I’m still scared as shit. But I’m fine.”
Meg Griffin quietly melting down in the dead of night is a whimsical but surprisingly upsetting image to hold in your head as Burst rages forth, churning with a more distorted spin on the turn-of-the-century pop-punk that also underpins Soccer Mommy’s best work. But the thought also makes this record’s moments of triumph, or at least mutually howled defiance, hit harder. “Hair” seems to nod to one of White’s coping mechanisms: “I have an identity crisis almost every day of my life,” she’d told Alive in an earlier 2019 interview. “I especially express that through makeup and wigs.” It’s pretty wonderful, then, to root them on as White and Hall settle into a chant of “You / Can’t / Tell me what to do.” It’s a chorus after Sheryl Crow’s own heart.
Same energy: “Just let me have the fun that I want,” pleads singer-guitarist Lauren Denitzio of the more punk-forward Brooklyn pop-punk band Worriers, who don’t fuss much with glitter (or Sheryl), but bring a startling wryness to their anger, politically engaged but also painfully intimate, that draws you in immediately. (In classic “wryly random pop-punk song title” fashion, that particular tune is called “Chicago Style Pizza Is Terrible.”) The best song on the quartet’s debut album, 2015’s Imaginary Life (produced by Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace), is called “Good Luck.” It is two minutes and one second long, and the chorus goes as follows:
Not gonna lie
Not gonna lie
I hope you
I hope you hate New England
Outstanding. Denitzio, who prefers they/them pronouns, enunciates with debate-champion crispness, and throughout the band’s third album, You or Someone You Know, navigates the aftermath of a romantic split with a self-deprecating clarity, from the brash swing of “PWR CPLE” (“I said we’d figure it out / You said we’re a dream team / Get away from me”) to the song called “What Comes Next?” that resolves with the line “I have all the love I need.” The revelation this time, for fans of Imaginary Life or Worriers’ excellently titled 2017 follow-up Survival Pop, comes in quieter tracks like “Terrible Boyfriend,” a frail and less ferocious side of the band that naturally cuts even deeper. The chorus to that one is outstanding, too, though not exactly played for laughs:
And if we’re being honest
I was not cut out to take you
Now a lighter left hand ain’t so bad
‘Cause I make a terrible boyfriend
I make a terrible boyfriend
There’s exquisite catharsis in this sadness, too, even if the soft elegance of Denitzio’s melody might leave you clutching an iPod Nano at 2 a.m. You will not mistake that song for “Torn,” no, but it feels just as good to even imagine yourself screaming along.