Olivia Rodrigo — the sprightly, young face of Gen Z pop music — makes her big return to the charts with her sophomore album GUTS two years after her breakthrough solo debut, SOUR. “drivers license” and “good 4 u,” Rodrigo’s two Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers, are streaming behemoths, scraping nearly two billion plays on Spotify, a testament to her younger audience’s affinity for her earnest, relatable songwriting.
Though SOUR was both critically and commercially lauded, the writing often felt juvenile, which is understandable since Rodrigo was in high school at the time. Her youth was evident in the album: Teenage theatrics complete with a sardonic, Gen Z sense of humor made SOUR a success among teens and tweens alike. But the album was back-ended with a heft of slower, more serious cuts whose melodrama lacked self-awareness to a laughable degree, like in the eye-roll-inducing “Favorite Crime,” which could have soundtracked a forbidden tryst between two C-list actors in a late 2000s coming-of-age romcom.
GUTS does not stray away from SOUR’s 2000s pop-rock pastiche and theatrical flair. Instead, it doubles down, rising to pretensions both Rodrigo and society have set for her. It’s a more mature album, a step in the right direction — it paints Rodrigo as the imperfect narrator, though it’s plain to see she is fully cognizant of her wrongdoings. Catty and astutely aware of her own feigned cluelessness, she calls herself “the perfect all-American bitch” on the bitter first track of the same name: She “forgive(s) and forget(s),” she is “grateful all the time,” and she “know(s her) place, and this is it.” Admittedly, the track can hinge a bit too close to Lana Del Rey-parody territory on the second verse, where she jokingly sings that she curls her hair with Coca-Cola bottles and carries the class of “a goddamn Kennedy,” kitschy allusions to classic Americana iconography. That aside, the track rocks, and it is a bold opening statement for the album.
Singles “bad idea right?” and “vampire” work excellently in the album. “bad idea right?” was a win from the start — Rodigo fakes clumsy obliviousness when making persistent ventures to her ex’s home, bemusedly recalling “I just tripped and fell into his bed.” A lighthearted, comical track, it implores the listener to sigh and throw their hands up in the air with her. “vampire,” however, is definitely a grower — a piano-rock number about a breakup that feels gaudy and overripe on its own. Its structure is a little too reminiscent of SOUR’s lead single, “drivers license,” Rodrigo hanging in her lower register throughout quietly simmering verses, succeeded by a steadily building chorus. Both songs end with Rodrigo uttering a convictive phrase while the instrumental backdrop is swiped from under her feet. Within GUTS, however, “vampire” is a propulsive moment of clarity for Rodrigo, in which she confesses to calling her manipulative ex-boyfriend’s past flings crazy and implies that he preys on younger women. The song may not be a strong single, but GUTS revitalizes it, giving its tragic, showy breakaway and presentation new meaning within an album where she plays victim to her own naivete.
Whereas SOUR was bogged down by its deep cuts, GUTS is the reverse — the slow-burner “making the bed” is its best track, which flawlessly illustrates Rodrigo’s frustration with feeling powerless and in which she comes to terms with this situation and realizes she’s partly to blame. This disillusionment with fame and relationships culminates in a medley of fatigue and fear. She’s the one “making the bed,” playing victim to her misgivings and misfortunes, though her language artfully implies her soft-spoken femininity is her truest fault in the midst of a daunting, ever-changing career marked by snowballing stardom, new boyfriends and new exes in consequence. It’s a sharp turning point from SOUR’s unabashed display of teenage emotion and unwavering self-assurance.
The ’80s new wave-inspired “love is embarrassing” is yet another high point. It is a whiny, derisive rollicker that could have been snugly slotted into the soundtrack of a bratty “Mean Girls”-esque teen chick flick if it were released 20 years ago. It holds its influences close — the track would not feel out of place in the hands of Cyndi Lauper or The Go-Go’s — but this doesn’t detract from its catchiness. The chorus soars atop a crashing storm of guitars and drums as Rodrigo deprecates herself and everyone in her vicinity. Rodrigo screams that “love’s embarrassing as hell,” beckoning the listener to watch as she crucifies herself for her “second-string” hookup, a “loser who’s not worth mentioning,” stating she “damn near started World War III.” The song’s humor makes it irresistibly infectious, and it deserves to be released as the album’s next single.
The album’s duds are easy to ignore — “pretty isn’t pretty” is a dull take on the commonplace theme of “pretty hurts,” leaving no impression with its use of vapid, yawn-triggering sayings like “you can win the battle, but you’ll never win the war.” Leave it to Beyoncé to sell anything more effectively. “Ballad of a homeschooled girl,” unlike “love is embarrassing,” actually could be mistaken for a song on the “Mean Girls” soundtrack for its blatant lyrical references to the movie, which makes its humor less original and more irritating. It’s an immediate skip by the third time the chorus blares through the listener’s earbuds. But besides some missteps, GUTS sees Rodrigo moving in the right direction: She is growing with her target audience. One can only hope she can match the commercial success and long-term staying power of SOUR moving forward.
Daily Arts Writer Zachary Taglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.