Music Review: Olivia Rodrigo rages against the machine and bad men with humor on ‘GUTS’
"GUTS" is an apt title, because audacious she is: Across 12 tracks, Rodrigo builds off the life experiences of a pop superstar now in the throes of fame — and her early 20s — with an acute wisdom.
LOS ANGELES: On Friday, Olivia Rodrigo — the Grammy winner best known for her 2021 smash single “drivers license” — released her highly anticipated sophomore album, “GUTS.”
It’s an apt title, because audacious she is: Across 12 tracks, Rodrigo builds off the life experiences of a pop superstar now in the throes of fame — and her early 20s — with an acute wisdom.
From the bloodsucking piano ballad “vampire” to the cheeky backslide anthem “bad idea right?” (Rodrigo has kept the all-lowercase titles that styled her debut), “GUTS” is at times a pop-punk album unafraid of taking dynamic swings, and a diaristic bloodletting.
But those lead singles hid greater moments: opener “all-american bitch,” inspired by a cast-off quote from a young hippie in Joan Didion’s “The White Album” essay collection, is pop-punk informed by Liz Phair or, like, the most obscure Rose Melberg record. Irony and anger are her swords: “I’m grateful all the time / I’m sexy and I’m kind / I’m pretty when I cry,” she sings.
“pretty isn’t pretty” recalls The Cure’s dreamy guitar tones, a cutting treatise on the price of impossible beauty standards.
It’s easy to hear your favorite rock bands represented here, but in a style completely Rodrigo’s own: Pavement punctuates “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” with lyrics that could double as a AOL away message. Pick your favorite: “Sеarchin’ ‘how to start a conversation?’ on a website (How to flirt?)”, or “Thought your mom was your wife / Called you the wrong name twice / Can’t think of a third line.”
“the grudge” is born from “drivers license” — a courageous piano power ballad. Where whisper-singing has become the foundation for many contemporary young pop stars, whose biggest singles consequently feel restrained, Rodrigo’s performance is pushed to the limits. Rage and disappointment will do that to you: They’re perhaps pop’s most underutilized tools — and rock’s greatest asset.
At the top of her debut album, Rodrigo asked “I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my f—-ing teenage dream?” in “brutal.” On “GUTS” she answers it in the closer “teenage dream”: “I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream,” she sings, the same woman who made getting her driver’s license a pop music concern for the world. Could adolescence be more damning?
Long has Rodrigo has been compared to her musical antecedent Taylor Swift, but the points of evidence on “GUTS” are few and far between — and in the album’s weakest moments, like “get him back!”, still far superior to a lesser artist’s greatest uptempo track. (Special mention goes to the lyric “I wanna meet your mom, just to tell her her son sucks.” Has devastation ever been so funny?)
“For me, this album is about growing pains and trying to figure out who I am at this point in my life,” Rodrigo said in a press release when the album was first announced. “I feel like I grew 10 years between the ages of 18 and 20 — it was such an intense period of awkwardness and change. I think that’s all just a natural part of growth, and hopefully the album reflects that.”
The musician once again teamed up with her close collaborator Dan Nigro, who produced “SOUR,” her first album that was a multiplatinum debut that won Rodrigo three Grammy Awards and made her the youngest solo artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Few forces are more potent than a young creative woman’s dissatisfaction — only, of course, if she chooses to wield it. For Rodrigo, it was never a question. She’ll just punctuate it with a laugh.