Tag Archives: singer-songwriters

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Stain” by Soccer Mommy

Jeremy Beck runs the website MovieManifesto, where he writes many, many movie reviews that nobody reads.
Jeremy Beck

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

It’s barely even a riff. Just four notes, two of them repeated—dun-dun da-doom. And with those quick plucks of her guitar strings, Sophie Allison suddenly drains her typically whimsical songwriting of all color and hope. The penultimate track on Color Theory, Allison’s second album as Soccer Mommy, “stain” is a stark departure; there are no gentle choruses or hummable bridges. But there isn’t angst or despair either; though she’s examining the dying embers of a failed relationship, Allison is too lucid to lapse into self-pity. Instead, the primary sensation of “stain” is absence. It feels like a void, like a sonic representation of the lack of connection. No wonder it hit me so hard in 2020.

Still, for its opening minute, it can fool you; catch it askance, and you’re liable to misinterpret the repetitive guitar and the sighing vocals as the setup for a sweet and vivid love song. After all, while Allison’s music packs a punch, it can also be soothing. (In my favorite track off her prior record, she softly marries the intimate with the interstellar: “I’m just a victim of changing planets / My Scorpio rising and my parents.”) And in the initial moments of “stain”, her metaphors hint at the possibility of true romance, as a former lover insists that they were “pulled off the refrigerator and magnetized at heart”. But then: dun-dun da-doom. The riff that isn’t a riff arrives, and from there, the song becomes an autopsy, a quietly volcanic reconstruction of a moribund partnership. Allison’s lyrics are characteristically evocative—her ex’s words were “like chloroform”, and they’ve befouled her “like the sheets at my parents’ house”—but what’s truly disturbing about the song is that there’s no escape from it. That riff just keeps repeating, like an eerily melodic terminator; it never subsides, but it also never builds to anything, because that would imply progress. Yet there’s no catharsis here, no sense of long-sought closure or even righteous anger. And after three unrelenting minutes, Allison doesn’t fade out the track so much as extinguish it, comparing herself to a burden-out match.

Just before delivering that beautifully terrible image, Allison recognizes that this ugly union has inflicted permanent damage: “I’m always stained, and it’s never coming out.” She sounds ruefully self-aware but not despondent, and I’m weirdly jealous of her composure. Perhaps she’s used her music as an exorcism of sorts, virtually transferring her pain to the listener. And so, while “stain” is magnificent, it should probably come with a warning attached. Once this song scratches its way into your soul, it’s never coming out.

TRACK MARKS: “Political Science” by Randy Newman

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.

Satire without the potential for danger is pointless. This is something Randy Newman knows all too well. It’s understandable that listeners of his early work (or fans of his later incarnation as a writer of sweet Pixar songs) would take it at face value; they all have the seductive, nostalgic quality of a stripped-to-the-bone pop song. The compositions are so pleasant to the ear that it’s easy to miss the sharpened daggers hiding just underneath the surface. Newman’s genius, though, is that he doesn’t want to wound his audience. He just wants to poke at them a little and see them squirm. A song like, say, “Rednecks,” perhaps his most controversial for its liberal use of the n-word, works because of its intense specificity and matchless evocation of a character’s voice, in that case a Southerner fed up with the smug superiority of the North, which is racist in less overt but no less harmful ways.

“Political Science” was first released on Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away during the height of the Cold War and disastrous final years of Vietnam, but its portrait of a cheerfully ignorant world leader is timeless, as this unfortunate election season has recently proved. As the Republican candidates run a race to the know-nothing bottom, hastened by a front-runner openly advocating war crimes and tarnishing America’s image abroad, the playful irony of Newman’s little ditty has become frighteningly plausible. “No one likes us. I don’t know why,” the narrator gently intones at the song’s opening before deciding a mere two lines later that nuclear destruction is the only option: “All around even our old friends put us down. Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” It’s a train of thought so simply and nonchalantly followed that it almost sounds like a good idea.

The song then moves into a flippant litany of reasons the rest of the world has it coming. They’re ungrateful, spiteful, Asia’s crowded, South America stole our name so “let’s drop the big one, there’ll be no one left to blame us.” A world made up of just people who think like us would be paradise, right? “How peaceful it’ll be,” the narrator blithely cries, “We’ll set everybody free!” But such bland agreeability has its own drawbacks. After all, once you begin destroying everyone who disagrees with you, how long will it be until that extends to those across the aisle in your own country? In most ways, we’re already there and we haven’t had to drop a big one in 70 years.

When Newman performed “Political Science” on The Colbert Report back in 2006, halfway through Bush’s unearned second term, it seemed like a knowing wink to the show’s left-leaning viewers. I wonder if he’d get the same reaction now. In the damning final couplet the narrator throws up his hands, which has come to seem like the only appropriate reaction to the modern political process: “They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.” We need the song more than ever, because the joke of it isn’t funny anymore.

There’s unfortunately no clips available of the Colbert performance but this one seems close enough: