Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Olivia Rodrigo GUTS


I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling LP2.

On GUTS, her sophomore album out today, the young superstar Olivia Rodrigo gets much rawer and messier than her childhood hero Taylor Swift ever did — hence a title designed to evoke both gritty resolve and the spilling of one’s innermost secrets. But throughout the record, Rodrigo harnesses the spirit of “22,” the Red single about young women spending “miserable and magical” nights on the town, “happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.” In this case, those sentiments are often funneled into volatile rock songs inspired by the MTV pop-rock hits of the ’90s and 2000s, a pantheon of Rodrigo inspirations-turned-pals that runs from Alanis to Avril. Yes, she still sings ballads, too. But it speaks volumes that a commenter on this website recently wrote that the new Mannequin Pussy song sounded like Olivia Rodrigo and meant it as a compliment.

Rodrigo’s 2021 debut album SOUR made her the biggest breakout pop star of the decade so far. The album was exciting for rock fans, who saw in Rodrigo a kindred spirit, and for pop fans that welcomed her as a fresh and vibrant presence. Whether channeling Paramore on “good 4 u,” borrowing a Radiohead riff on “deja vu,” or reflecting back Phoebe Bridgers and Lorde on her record-breaking debut single “drivers license,” she came off as a young talent with good taste and her own point of view. She had the poise and polish you’d expect from a child actor, but Rodrigo diverged from the path of past Disney Channel stars in a way that won her the mutual admiration of heroes like Jack White, Annie Clark, and Kathleen Hanna. The album was bogged down by too many weepy laments, but — buoyed by the combination of Rodrigo’s instincts and producer Dan Nigro’s experience — it felt like an instant classic despite its flaws.

The new record leans into Rodrigo’s strengths more and more. As on SOUR, she spends much of GUTS singing about breakups, betrayals, and unfair expectations. This time, though, she seems to be having so much fun chronicling those travails. The last song Rodrigo and Nigro wrote for SOUR was “brutal,” the album’s explosive and discordant opening track. GUTS often taps back into that song’s livewire energy, resulting in a stack of wildly entertaining singles-in-waiting. Even the saddest, most straight-faced tracks on the album are a step up from SOUR, adding depth and nuance to what could have been boilerplate slow jams. But the more unhinged Rodrigo allows herself to get, the brighter she shines.

To wit: She raps. She raps, and it is not even close to a disaster. On highlight “get him back!,” over a track that’s half “So Whatcha Want” and half “Steal My Sunshine,” Rodrigo vacillates between competing urges for reconciliation and revenge, toggling between two meanings of the phrase as she nimbly rides the beat. In verse one, she introduces her toxic, magnetic foil: “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.” She’s not above painting herself as pathetic, too: “Yeah, I pour my little heart out, but as I’m hitting send/ I picture all the faces of my disappointed friends.” When she switches back to singing on the bridge, we get more eminently quotable bars, from “I want to key his car/ I want to make him lunch” to “I want to meet his mom/ Just to tell her her son sucks!” Gluing all this together is a massive shout-along chorus like Sleigh Bells channeling “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It’s the album’s least predictable zag and its most obvious potential hit.

You already heard Rodrigo doing a speak-sing thing on “bad idea right?,” the giddily chaotic advance track that snapped like Elastica. That one’s also about her irrepressible desire to fall back into an ex-boyfriend’s bed, full of spoken asides and quips that speak to Rodrigo’s peerless line reading: the whispered, resigned “Fuck it, it’s fine,” but also the shit-eating grin you can hear when she declares, “And I’m sure I’ve seen much hotter men/ But I really can’t remember when.” All the while, driving bass, drums, and guitar brilliantly mirror the narrative — building up pressure until an unbearable breaking point, then exploding into short-term euphoria.

Songs like these are exciting for the way they explode with energy and ideas, Trojan-horsing unruly rock music into the pop mainstream in a way that feels natural, not focus-grouped. They make “good 4 u” feel tame by comparison. Just as importantly, they represent Rodrigo growing up as a lyricist, moving past the single-minded wallowing of SOUR into a more complex, less melodramatic state of mind. Her debut was relatable because overblown teenage heartbreak is a universal rite of passage, but it’s refreshing to hear her mature beyond self-pity. Even the impassioned piano ballads that come close to SOUR redux tend to temper Rodrigo’s anger and distress with a bit more self-awareness. On “logical,” after logging her former partner’s many sins, she takes ownership of her own mistakes: “I know I’m half responsible/ And that makes me feel horrible.” On “the grudge,” she at least considers the possibility of advancing beyond her despair: “It takes strength to forgive, but/ I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.”

Not every quiet one lands. The whispery, glittering “lacy,” about Rodrigo being undermined and mistreated by someone she worships, loses me at the opening line about “skin like puff pastry” and never quite recovers. The songs about grappling with the loss of a normal adolescence (“making the bed”) and the crushing expectations of fame (the ingeniously titled closer “teenage dream”) are tough to connect with, but the arrangements are stellar, and Rodrigo’s performance is compelling. It’s far more exciting when lead single “vampire” morphs from standard Rodrigo sad-girl fare into a disco-rock anthem fit for the Broadway stage, like “I Will Survive” crossed with “Bat Out Of Hell.” It’s easy to imagine the hokey treatment they might have applied to “pretty isn’t pretty,” Rodrigo’s treatise on the struggle with impossible beauty standards, but the song benefits immeasurably from a fast-gliding arrangement that could almost pass for Phoenix.

If Rodrigo excels when her sad songs get a jolt of electricity, she’s basically invincible when she properly wilds out. Fortunately, GUTS is full of songs that spike her negative emotions with biting wit and winsome goofiness. She makes so many expressive tweaks to her voice, breaking into quirky affectations on the driving, Alvvays-esque “love is embarrassing” and outright screaming at the peak of “all-american bitch,” the album’s brash and cheeky opening track. And while she still wails away on her scorned-lover tracks in a way that can feel a bit overblown, she sounds phenomenal letting her voice edge up to a scream amidst the anxious jubilation of “ballad of a homeschooled girl”: “Each time I step outside/ It’s social suicide!”

She still commands a massive audience that would be the envy of most artists, but — like her immediate predecessor Billie Eilish — in following her muse, it’s possible Rodrigo has opted out of the Hot 100 domination she enjoyed on SOUR to become more of an album artist. After debuting at #1 partially due to holdover interest from the last LP, “vampire” essentially vanished from the zeitgeist like Dracula exposed to sunlight. The transcendent “bad idea right?” never came close to topping the chart. Partially that’s because the bedroom-pop and pop-punk moments that album embodied have given way to an era of crossover country hegemony. Also, there’s functionally not much difference between GUTS and whatever’s coming up the expensive-publicist indie-rock pipeline, and that kind of music lends itself to sustainable longevity more than world-conquering smash hits. I’m not sure if there’s another “drivers license”-level cultural phenomenon on GUTS, and there doesn’t need to be. From start to finish, it’s a more accomplished, adventurous album than SOUR, one that has me excited to follow Rodrigo’s career for the long haul. “I fear that they already got all the best parts of me,” Rodrigo sings in the new album’s final moments. She doesn’t need to worry about that, but she can feel free to freak out about it if her neuroses are going to keep spilling over into music this emphatically alive.

GUTS is out now on Geffen.

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