While a then-17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo initially captivated listeners with her striking power-ballad “drivers license,” it was the edgier, pop punk-leaning “good 4 u” that had the most staying power from her world-dominating debut, SOUR. On sophomore project GUTS, it’s pretty clear that Rodrigo and returning producer Dan Nigro took note of that. Together, they sidestep the sophomore jinx with a project that finds Rodrigo both bidding her youth goodbye with expectedly mixed feelings and mining the last bits of delightfully bratty exuberance out of it through talk-singing, belted sneers and a variety of tracks that feel unexpectedly like they might have come from the last Wet Leg album. If you’ve wronged Rodrigo, you’re about equally likely to receive a simple, shouted “you suck” as you are a full-verse poetic dismantling on this album. The best moments are where the two sides combine, like on presumptive future smash hit “get him back!” where Rodrigo offers a clever lyrical twist playing with the title’s double meaning, or when she elects to let her still-stunning vocals shine a little more over the indie-rock soundscapes. A couple ballads still hang around, but if GUTS succeeds at one thing, it’s proving that Rodrigo certainly isn’t a flash in the pan or a one trick pony. She’s a multitalented powerhouse, and in a lot of ways, she’s exactly what we needed to shake up the mainstream pop scene and make it interesting again.
Rodrigo doesn’t elect to start her album with some of its heaviest moments this time around, but the angelic air and acoustic backdrop of “all-american bitch” is more of a put-on than anything before it explodes into a chorus that blows “brutal” out of the water. It’s all incredibly sarcastic, and serves as a solid introduction to an album where Rodrigo does a lot of toying with double standards in people’s perceptions and expectations of her. She unleashes some truly impressive screams in a bridge where she comments on suppressing her urges to lash out, all in the name of keeping up a pleasant demeanour. The two singles follow, and while the blown-out, monotone shout of the chorus of “bad idea right?” initially turned some listeners off – it’s certainly not the place you want to put the least catchy part of your tune – the more you listen to it, Rodrigo’s playful attitude hooks you. You can hear the eye-rolls behind every word she says, criticizing herself and her much-maligned former beau with equal vitriol to have ended up in the rendezvous that they do. The harmony on “My brain goes ahhhh” is pretty inspired. Lead single “vampire,” as well, is a striking track that has just as much of a show-stopping demonstration of Rodrigo’s impressive vocal power as “drivers license” did. A beautifully emotive tackling of a piano ballad, it’s emphasized with poetic and evocative lyricism building up to the instrumental dropping back for a single, stunning belted note and the most effective usage of a jarring musical f-bomb in years. Showcasing her versatility, the track picking up in tempo and adding elements in an engaging build up finds her displaying more personality as well. Of course, in true Rodrigo fashion, the bridge is the best part.
Rodrigo is often the master of hidden undercurrents, and there’s a big one on the track “lacy.” It’s one of the sweetest acoustic tunes she’s ever written as she goes doe-eyed over everything she loves about a mystery woman, but she ultimately describes the obsession as “the sweetest torture one could bear.” The compliments she receives are akin to bullets, and Rodrigo eventually reveals that “Lacy” possesses something that she wants. The realization that Rodrigo likely wrote such a powerful, poetic ballad about someone like Sabrina Carpenter speaks volumes about her poignant pen. “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” on the other hand, flounders a little bit for the same reasons that “brutal” did. The muddy mix when it comes to the wall of guitars isn’t as good as it is on the rest of the album, and the fuzzy filter on Rodrigo’s voice takes away some of her natural power. Building up to some belted bits in a chorus where she laments her social awkwardness, it’s clearly supposed to be a little rough around the edges, especially as Rodrigo “can’t think of a third line” by the end, but that doesn’t really play to her strengths. “making the bed” starts to find Rodrigo addressing her whirlwind success and what it means for her perceptions of self, as things spiral out of control and the friends surrounding her become more fair-weather. It’s something that she talks about more powerfully later on in the album, but the chorus still demonstrates some of her heart-rending high notes, her voice wavering on the brink of breaking down.
Rodrigo is one of the best in the business when it comes to describing heartbreak, and she recruits another one of the best in Julia Michaels to co-write on the track “logical.” On another affecting piano ballad, Rodrigo adds “I’m the love of your life” to a list of nonsense statements in the chorus, lamenting the universal commitment to throwing one’s brain out the window when clouded by romantic thoughts. It has to be said that whatever she does when she brushes over her consonants with a feathery touch – the one that turns “lacy” into “lashey” – is completely addictive and uniquely her, continuing to come out on this track. “get him back!” is the S-class version of “bad idea right?” in many ways, as Rodrigo talk-sings the listeners through a story about reminiscing on an ex’s charms – and lack thereof – confused about how she wants to address the conflicting feelings still lingering around. One of the most smartly written pop songs I’ve heard in a long time, she flips back and forth between interpretations of the title and throws in some humorously potent lines (the best ones nodding to her father’s profession of therapy, and of course, “I wanna meet his mom, just to tell her her son sucks”). Contemplating both revenge and reconciliation, she delivers the album’s catchiest chorus here. It’s fun to hear Rodrigo getting a little blunter in her lyrical content these days, because the self-awareness in writing a central lyric like “Watch as I crucify myself for some weird second-string loser who’s not worth mentioning” on “love is embarrassing,” knowing everything we know about her from her other work, really lands on an album that dials up the pop-rock factor. It’s a big, cathartic, relatable anthem.
Speculation about a blonde megastar aside, “the grudge” is another sweeping ballad about the betrayal of being made to feel small by someone Rodrigo admires. People have been comparing the production and slowly ascending melody to “drivers license,” and it doesn’t quite capture the same lightning in a bottle, but it’s another emotionally-driven peek into her life. There have been quite a few songs by Rodrigo’s peers about insecurities about looks over the years, but none of them tackle the details quite as well as she does, criticizing capitalistic culture right along with it on “pretty is pretty” as she tries every possible fix to make her feel better and still ends up feeling inadequate. “teenage dream” closes out the album with one of its most fascinating sentiments, as Rodrigo tackles a concept that might not be unique to her, but the aspects of it are certainly exacerbated as she becomes a global icon: worrying that she’s already peaked as a teenager when she still has so much of her life ahead of her, and hoping to be seen as “just good” instead of “great for her age.”
Truthfully, Rodrigo is both – she was never just great for her age, she broke out onto the scene with a lot more artistry and natural talent than most of the veterans in her field. Her songwriting, mic presence, versatility and vocal power should eventually assuage the fears she presents on the closer, because everybody is going to be able to recognize this.
Favourite Tracks: get him back!, vampire, lacy, logical, love is embarrassing
Least Favourite Track: ballad of a homeschooled girl