The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

Follow us on Instagram

Album review: Olivia Rodrigo conquers the sophomore slump on ‘GUTS’

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

All eyes seemed to be on singer-songwriter and actress Olivia Rodrigo in the lead-up to her second studio album “GUTS.”

As is the case for Rodrigo or anyone like her in pop music — an unforgiving, competitive industry that regularly chews up and spits out young women — the pressures to follow overnight success are high.

Rodrigo saw that rare success with 2021’s “SOUR,” a concise, mid-pandemic debut record that spawned multiple Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since been certified Platinum four times. Instant pop classics like “drivers license,” “deja vu” and “good 4 u” made the singer-songwriter a household name in a matter of months.

Over two years, three GRAMMYs and a sold-out world tour later, the now 20-year-old Rodrigo is back with the aforementioned “GUTS,” a record that takes the daunting task of replicating the achievements of “SOUR” and spits in its face before headbanging to a riff.

Across its 12 tracks and 39 minutes (yet another succinct outing for the artist), “GUTS” sees Rodrigo ditch most of the affable, girl-next-door ballads found on “SOUR” for rawer, punchier and delightfully angrier hits. Rodrigo’s debut gave a small taste of her knack for pop-punk numbers (“brutal,” “good 4 u” and “jealousy, jealousy”), but “GUTS” turns the dial up to a blisteringly satisfying 11.

Rodrigo does so with the help of her “SOUR” collaborator Dan Nigro, who co-wrote and produced “GUTS” with the artist and seems to have carved out a niche in distilling Gen-Z’s greatest pop ideals (see Nigro’s recent work with Rodrigo’s zany tourmate Chappell Roan for even more evidence).

On the bitter, satirical Joan Didion-inspired album opener “all-american b-tch,” Rodrigo claws her way out of a box crafted for her, cycling between wispy, acoustic guitar-backed vocals and shouts over a thrashing chorus. It’s part Green Day, part Hole, but completely Rodrigo, who uses the track as a catharsis, seemingly poking fun at her former Disney image and the expectations placed upon women in an ever-changing social and political climate.

Gone is the pop ingénue as she sarcastically blurts “Forgive and I forget/I know my age, and I act like it/Got what you can’t resist/I’m a perfect all-american.” As “all-american b-tch” suggests, Rodrigo “screams inside to deal with it,” but she also spends some time actually screaming on the bridge, which is far more gratifying. It’s a totally killer status update for Rodrigo, who nowadays appears to be less concerned with appeasing standards and more interested in being herself.

The artist’s crunchy heavy hitters don’t stop there. The hilarious “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is anything but a ballad. The track, which hits just before the record’s middle, is a clever and endearingly weird look at social anxiety through the eyes of Rodrigo, whose homeschool experience has seemed to hinder her.

Once again drawing inspiration from some of the pop-rock genre’s finest acts (Michelle Branch, Veruca Salt, Alanis Morissette) and even “One of the Boys”-era Katy Perry, Rodrigo wrestles with constantly “making it weird and making it worse” on the track, beating herself up over searching the web for “how to start a conversation,” laughing at the wrong time and liking guys who aren’t exactly interested in women — all of which are “social suicide” for the artist.

Some of her most noticeable strengths as an artist include her charismatic delivery and her painfully relatable, witty lyrics, both of which are on full display on “ballad of a homeschooled girl” (“Thought your mom was your wife/Called you the wrong name twice/Can’t think of a third line/La-la-la-la-la-la” is already classic Rodrigo).

Rodrigo’s growth has been something to marvel at ever since “drivers license” first dominated streaming platforms, but with aging comes new experiences and feelings, and not all of these are pleasant.

These darker, cutting emotions fuel “GUTS” and offer stark contrast to the quiet heartbreak and ultimate optimism found on “SOUR.”

On the mature, self-loathing “making the bed,” Rodrigo reflects on her newfound fame and meteoric rise, and on the scathing, Billboard No. 1 single “vampire,” she grapples with the dissolution of a relationship with an older partner. “Went for me and not her/’Cause girls your age know better,” she scolds on the swelling, theatrical piano epic, comparing the predatory ex to a “bloodsucker” and “fame f-cker” with soaring vocals. The pre-album track remains a memorable standout not only on the full record but also in Rodrigo’s discography so far.

Just as eerie in tone is “teenage dream,” which shares no similarities with the aforementioned Perry’s jovial, nostalgic track of the same name. Instead, Rodrigo’s “teenage dream” confronts the perils of late adolescence with great unease. The singer-songwriter poses several existential questions on the track, asking when she’ll “stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise” and when she’ll “stop being great for my age and just start being good.”

Woefully, “teenage dream” does not provide a confident outlook on Rodrigo’s future. “But I fear that they already got all the best parts of me/And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream,” she laments in the chorus. Even so, the track’s slow build into its loud, instrumental-heavy outro is an apt conclusion to “GUTS.”

On the haunting “lacy” — sure to be a fan favorite — Rodrigo plays the role of covetous interloper, apparently obsessing over an ex’s new partner. “I see you everywhere/The sweetest torture one could bare,” she sings in the chorus, her cadence hair-raising. “Aren’t you the sweetest thing on this side of hell?” Rodrigo asks the titular Lacy, mulling over her own insecurities. The track is an intimate, admirably odd one for the artist, who is continuously gravitating toward the abnormal.

Rest assured, Rodrigo makes the time to have more raucous fun on “GUTS,” and so too does the listener. Tracks like “love is embarrassing,” the pre-released “bad idea right?” and the tour-ready “get him back!” once again don the pop-rock sound. The double entendre “get him back!” echoes the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ droning guitars and Avril Lavigne’s spry, chanting vocals as Rodrigo debates wanting to “get back” both with and at an ex, lacing revenge with attachment (I wanna break his heart/Then be the one to stitch it up/Wanna kiss his face/With an uppercut).

Rodrigo’s pension for ballads does slow the breaks on “GUTS” on more than one occasion, with tracks like “logical” and “the grudge” getting lost in the satisfying chaos of the record. The former would have been right at home on “SOUR,” but on “GUTS” it feels only a little contrived. The latter seems like a natural progression from where Rodrigo left things on “drivers license,” both sonically and thematically, though the artist looks through her rearview mirror this time around. Nonetheless, neither are devoid of emotion, and Rodrigo’s soaring vocals keep both from falling totally flat.

Since day one, Rodrigo has been armed with a generational megaphone, lyricizing the greatest struggles faced by her and her peers, whether personal or societal. The fretting, well-timed anthem “pretty isn’t pretty” is no exception to this.

Embracing the breezy guitars of The Cure and contemporaries like MUNA and Soccer Mommy, Rodrigo offers critique of today’s beauty standards’ effect on young women on the track (“When pretty isn’t pretty enough, what do you do?/And everybody’s keepin’ it up, so you think it’s you”). It mirrors the artist’s own “jealousy, jealousy,” but opposed to vilifying comparison and envy like she did on that “SOUR” track, she uses “pretty isn’t pretty” to blame the system, rightfully taking the blame off herself. In an age of influencers and trends, it stands as one of the album’s most important offerings, and for all its anxieties, it certainly has no business sounding as good as it does.

On “GUTS,” Rodrigo shines as a plucky, imperfect misfit plagued by the twilight of her teenage years. The singer-songwriter sounds more confident on the record than she ever has, despite the album’s vulnerable and often embarrassing subject matter. These strengths are only bolstered by Rodrigo’s decision to record some “GUTS” tracks with a live band, crafting rich pop-rock arrangements to accompany her pen and voice, which only improve the more she creates.

Rodrigo squashes any notion of a sophomore slump with “GUTS,” and contrary to what the artist sings in the album’s closing track — “I fear that they already got all the best parts of me” — it’s clear that we aren’t even close to her peak. And if this album is any indication, Rodrigo will neither be chewed up nor spit out by the cutthroat pop industry discussed earlier, but instead thrive, equipped with brutal honesty and a ferocious rockstar spirit.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributor
Gray Greenwell, Features/Copy Editor

Comments (0)

All Kentucky Kernel Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *