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Olivia Rodrigo hits musical heights on ‘GUTS’

The album cover for Olivia Rodrigo’s album “Guts.” This is Rodrigo’s sophomore album which released on Sept. 8, two years after her debut album “Sour.” (Geffen Records via AP)

Olivia Rodrigo’s “GUTS” feels like an album of bad decisions, and I love it. 

If the album’s lead singles were any sign, “GUTS” is a turn away from the youthful love and heartbreak on Rodrigo’s debut album “SOUR.” 

If “SOUR” was Rodrigo’s high-school love album, “GUTS” is her first year of college – crazy and full of bad decisions but full of good memories nonetheless. 

“bad idea right?” and “vampire” feel like the bitter, spurned feeling of early adulthood, especially after trauma and pain – emotions that were clear on “SOUR.”

Musically, Rodrigo spans all sorts of genres on “GUTS.” Where “lacy” is an acoustic ballad with a constant soft acoustic guitar and breathy vocals. “ballad of the homeschooled girl,” the next track on the album, is the epitome of pop punk: Raging rhythm guitars, overdriven vocals and messy, crashing drums blow out the speakers. 

While Rodrigo showed off her songwriting chops on “SOUR” with its blunt and harsh specifics and use of common cliches in non-standard ways, “GUTS,” feels in places like a step back.

Despite the superb writing on songs like “lacy” and “teenage dream,” Rodrigo’s writing on this album is a little immature. Often, she leans too heavily on the cliches that have always been in her writing. When she does it well, it’s glorious and a spin on classic phrases we all know and hate. When she doesn’t, well, she falls into that cliche too.

Her writing, at its worst, sounds like its made to go viral on TikTok, a la GAYLE’s “abcdefu.” 

Of course, this makes sense. Rodrigo is only 20 years old. No one should be expecting artistic perfection from someone that young. 

Instead, Rodrigo’s experimentation deserves to be heralded. After the massive success of “SOUR,” Rodrigo could have doubled down on the cookie-cutter pop songs and written 40 different version of “drivers license.” 

Despite the on-and-off songwriting, Rodrigo hits new musical heights. “GUTS” takes the base of “SOUR” and elevates the instrumentation and execution.

The sexy and raging “bad idea right?” is the perfect encapsulation of this. The almost spoken verses pair perfectly with pumping synths of the refrain and the steady chanting on the chorus. 

However, the second verse is Rodrigo at her best. When she sings “I know I should stop” as the music stops and follows the line up with singing the braggadocious “in whose sheets” a few lines later, Rodrigo shows her mastery of the fun pop song. The final lines of the verse “And I’m sure I’ve seen much hotter men / But I really can’t remember when” is conversational and matter of fact to the point that it feels like one of your friends is legitimately making these bad decisions right in front of you.

The thing that makes Rodrigo’s tick is her ability to be aware of what her music needs.  

Rodrigo’s self-awareness is most clear on “making the bed.” Rodrigo’s use of her standard cliches, but repeated again and again emphasize the feelings she’s writing about. 

As she repeats the line “It’s me who’s been making the bed,” Rodrigo is pulling the sheets of the listeners ears just as she herself does. The repetition here, more than anything else, shows that she’s aware of these mistakes and that she isn’t willing to fix them – it shows that she is making her bed and now lying in it. 

For me though, “teenage dream” may be Rodrigo’s best work on this album. 

This song is a direct answer to “brutal” from her previous album. Where “brutal” asks “where’s my f-ing teenage dream?” she turns the phrase back around, singing “And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.” 

“teenage dream” is also Rodrigo at her most vulnerable. The bridge with its roaring scream features Rodrigo yelling out “They all say that it gets better / It gets better, but what if I don’t?” 

This scream ends the album with a whimper, rather than with a bang. While Rodrigo’s writing may fall into pop-ish cliches, “GUTS” accents the new age in life that Rodrigo is in, early adulthood, and shows the pain, the pleasure and the passion that comes with this evolution. 

“GUTS” can be listened to on all music streaming platforms.

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