Album Review: Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS

[Geffen; 2023]

SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo‘s debut album, had hits. All manner of them. A dramatic power ballad, a dream-like pop/psychedelia mix, a slower ballad so dramatic it made the first one sound rational, all appropriate advertising for the soft singer-songwriter sound of the album. Importantly, however, the biggest hit of all was something different: a snarky, whiny, immature pop-punk throwback. “good 4 u” was a kind of hit the charts had not seen for a while. A scream-along chorus that showed the age of its author with no shame. Along with it came “brutal”, the lesser of the singles in the charts but a song many critics singled out as an indicator of Rodrigo’s potential for its rougher edges and more honest rage. That said, potential doesn’t equal results. Pop music did not follow Olivia Rodrigo’s model save for some less than subtle wannabes with meagre results, so to double down would take, pun non-intended, guts.

Double down, however, Rodrigo did. In multiple ways, all at once. Second album teaser single “vampire” brought back the theatrical drama of “traitor”, the driving drums of “deja vu” and the dramatic crescendos of “drivers license”, all creating an end product that was a lot to take in, but that kept the whole audience coming back. A steady presence in the top 10, the song automatically saved Rodrigo from any and all ‘one-album-wonder’ comments, but the same myriad of sonic ideas that created the feeling of rush in the center of the song ensured no one had even the vaguest idea of where Rodrigo would go from here.

The second single “bad idea right?” brought the answer much to the delight of everyone: scream-along pop-punk, now bigger, better, angrier, catchier, and whatever else you could want. Whereas other 20-year-old Disney starlets before her pulled all the stops to be perceived as ‘grown’, Rodrigo lets her youth stand at the very center of her work. As such, SOUR was an album thoroughly concerned with high-school emotions. With the release of “bad idea right?”, we watched her petty drama graduate into college territory. Rather than sitting in her room crying over a boy who was the greatest villain who ever lived, the new Olivia Rodrigo is in equal standing with the ex reappearing in her life. She knows she should stop, but she can’t. It’s a bad idea right? “Fuck it it’s fine.” “bad idea right?” updates the stylings of “brutal” to create something catchier and slicker, while the singer’s writing finds a new effortlessness that plays perfectly into her trademark ability to deliver her lines with character and personality, always betraying her acting background. It’s the kind of unapologetic confession of the youthful fuckup every generation needs to have. Gen-Alpha will one day grow up and decide how this song will age, but I believe it is permanently etched into the cultural identity of Gen-Z.

Presenting a fully-formed identity for her generation of young people, if not Rodrigo’s main concern, is her accidental triumphal accomplishment. GUTS‘ opener “all-american bitch” comes as “bad idea right?”’s companion piece, with equal amounts of youthful drama this time paired with a punching dose of introspection. The result is an earnest shout of frustration reminiscent of and yet entirely unique in the great cannon of musical complaints by young people. If its distinct Gen-Z flavor can be put in one word, it would be ‘cynicism’. The defeatism contained in a line like “I know my age and I act like it” is perfectly in touch with the zeitgeist. Add to that, of course, that Rodrigo is writing better choruses than ever, and one can expect it’ll be many years before disaffected 20-somethings stop loudly proclaiming this one.

While in SOUR Rodrigo hinted at rock twice and then moved on, with GUTS she seems committed to bringing the traditional guitar/bass/drums sound back to its former mainstream glory. Mid-tempo rocker “get him back!” almost begs for a mid-00s chick-flick to soundtrack (can that be the next trend coming back?). Lyrically, the singer portrays herself in the most unflattering light she has ever shot for. Her ex’s bad deeds are in the past, and her problematic thoughts are very much in the present. It’s a level of self-aware sincerity within contradiction that almost transcends the record’s admitted immaturity, paired with a sound so crowd-ready that this song alone is worth a ticket for her upcoming tour.

Even more self-flagellating, “ballad of a homeschooled girl” (ballad being something of a misnomer) sees Rodrigo completely caving to her anxieties in a pained monologue where “everything I do is tragic / every boy I like is gay”. It’s an unnecessary amount of drama, but it’s also an excess none can criticize her for without being a hypocrite. She pulls no punches towards herself, closing it all with an “ugh” in a particularly relatable flourish. “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is a tour-de-force of the artist’s ability to bring the aching vulnerability of a ballad to a pop-rock sound.

Let it never be said, however, that Rodrigo’s balladeer days are behind her. Her finest hour behind the piano, “logical” brings in hyperbolic equivalences and the mesmerizing tension of her voice to create a feeling of crushing shame unlike anything she had delivered before. “Two plus two equals five / and I’m the love of your life” is not a cleverly subtle line, but Rodrigo is not here for subtlety. The extent of her hurt is in full display, she is vulnerable, she is wounded, and nothing is hidden. It’s truly an impressive performance.

The other ballads in this record don’t quite rise to the same level, but because Rodrigo is a relentlessly talented songwriter they are all in the very least quotable. “lacy”, the album’s only acoustic guitar tune, brings in a layering of vocals reminiscent of Lana Del Rey to a narrative of one-sided hurting with ham-fisted but fitting rhymes like “Lacy oh Lacy / I just loathe you lately”. “making the bed” is the rare moment of the artist reflecting on her life in showbusiness, coming closer to reality than most of her other offerings with lines like “I tell someone I love them / just as a distraction”. “the grudge” and closer “teenage dream” both admit to weakness and fears to a bare-bones piano background. Confessions like “it takes strength to forgive / but I don’t feel strong” and “I fear that they’ve already got all the best parts of me” are down-to-earth moments that keep the record grounded. It’s easy to understand why Rodrigo wanted ballads that allow the record to breathe, and she certainly has the pen to make it happen, but it is a shame that the rockers got to keep all the interesting musical ideas.

If dragging the soft confessional pianist from SOUR back to life brings occasionally underwhelming results, one can always find solace in the promising future of rockstar Olivia. While her sound and lyrical style are firmly indebted to the female rock icons of the 90s and 00s, in “love is embarrassing” her looseness and her rockstar swagger are reminiscent of Blondie’s Debbie Harry, another female rockstar with unforgettable hooks. “pretty isn’t pretty” meanwhile is the album’s moment of balance, where the soft songwriter and the rockstar are both present, allowing for a song with the confessional insecure themes of the ballads along with replay value aplenty. These songs show that Rodrigo isn’t done after GUTS. While she has the success of a fully-formed star, and most of the time songs worthy of one, the bumps on the road lend both relatability and promise to a star that – as high as she may be – is very much still rising. GUTS is the kind of work a generation of young people needs, and I’m sure many will look back at having their youth soundtracked by such a talent as a privilege.