Pop Culture

Album Review: Olivia Rodrigo, ‘GUTS’

“I want it to be, like, messy,” Olivia Rodrigo declared a few seconds into her debut album SOUR, abruptly replacing the orchestral strings that open ‘brutal’ with a jagged alt-rock riff. It’s a bold aesthetic for the pandemic’s biggest breakout pop star to lean into, but it stretched through the rest of the album, which flaunted her versatility and taste by balancing gloomy, impassioned ballads with pop-punk ragers. At its best, it wasn’t, like, but really messy – achingly honest in ways that made you forget about the polish and theatricality behind the craft, enough to keep up its sometimes shaky momentum. On GUTS, her follow-up, Rodrigo sounds less concerned with making an impression or playing a range of different parts, instead highlighting both the nuance and rawness of her songwriting. It’s exacting and stronger in its messiness – more intentional about each shift in dynamics – but also convincingly volatile, risky, and playful. The tug-of-war of emotions, confusing and relatable as it may be, isn’t just an inevitable consequence of growing up; it’s part of the fun.

Throughout GUTS, Rodrigo is witty, self-aware, bored, tormented, and delirious – but most of all, she’s having fun. It would be obvious she’s reveling in the dual thrill of grittiness and vulnerability even if the title wasn’t in all-caps, but she also communicated it in her brilliant choice of singles. ‘vampire’ begins with a minimal arrangement before adding heft and a pulse to the intimate pain of betrayal, lending operatic power to her vengeful little words. On the other hand, ‘bad idea right?’, which sees her giving in to the desire to hook up with her ex-boyfriend, makes the giddy enthusiasm of “Like a damn sociopath” seem meek by comparison. (Its twitchy guitar solo also suggests she’s picked up a thing or two from her mentors in Jack White and St. Vincent.) Rodrigo doesn’t let her self-awareness tame her unruly tendencies – if anything, it brings them to life. For all the anxieties wrapped into ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl’, the closest thing here to ‘brutal’, everything from the bratty “ohs” backing the line “Everything I do is tragic/ Every guy I like is gay” to the way her voice perks up as she declares “social suicide” gives her self-consciously embarrassing behaviour an exhilarated edge.

On the opening ‘all-american bitch’, which references Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Rodrigo sings tenderly and snarkily about the impossible expectations to which women and young girls are held, one of which being gleeful optimism. But making light of the darkness is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter, like when she packs hook upon hook a la Alvvays on ‘love is embarassing’, turning the self-crucifying stupidity of heartbreak into something electrifying. Her scornful attitude animates standout ‘get him back!’ – “He had an ego and a temper and a wandering eye/ He said he’s six-foot-two and I’m like, dude, nice try” – but becomes all the more intoxicating as she switches back and forth between wanting a reunion or straight-up revenge, the rush of indecision packaged in a huge shout-along chorus. It’s both one of the shiniest moments on the album and one of the most unhinged, proof that Rodrigo could push her fearlessness a little further and still strike gold.

As in ‘vampire’, there are echoes of ‘driver’s license’ in most of GUTS’ ballads, which are fewer and more smartly spread out than the ones in SOUR. Even if they don’t all reach the same dramatic heights, they flesh out the album’s breadth of feeling beyond anger and resentment while learning to grow through them. Dan Negro’s production doesn’t just add more muscle to the louder cuts, but a focused, patient sensitivity to the softer ones that’s gratefully attuned to Rodrigo’s delivery; ‘making the bed’ waits until the second verse to earn its Melodrama-level grandiosity, while ‘lacy’ couches its jealousy in dazzling layers of beauty. Yet toe to toe with ‘vampire’ is ‘the grudge’, which does the least to build on the formula of her biggest hit – it succeeds not because it does the exact same thing, but because it’s more intent on expressing rather than fighting back a sense of exhaustion. It’s a feeling that carries over from ‘lacy’, echoing her childhood hero in its repetition of try, but here she just admits, “It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.”

On songs like ‘pretty isn’t pretty’, Rodrigo effectively broadens the framing of GUTS beyond personal insecurity, and she has a way of writing through the lens of fame without quite tackling it, which can be alienating for most listeners. But on ‘the grudge’, she’s standing alone in front of her bedroom mirror, and you can her shrinking in the eyes of an ex-lover. Instead of revenge, she fantasizes “about a time you’re a little fucking sorry.” Then, somewhat unexpectedly, her voice hits a soaring peak: “You built me up to watch me fall/ You have everything and you still want more.” Of course, it lands like a gut-punch. Great ambitions aside, all Rodrigo wants, as she sings on the final track ‘teenage dream’, is to “stop being great for my age and just start being good.” Even when she’s, like, not, you can bet she’ll write a great song about it – an angsty guitar freakout, a soul-crushing piano ballad, or whatever happens to blaze the path towards catharsis.

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