Monday 9 October 2023

Review of 'Guts' by Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo proves on Guts that she’s one of the more exciting artists to come out of Mickey Mouse’s pop star assembly line – especially when she leans more towards her rock side.

My initial impressions of Olivia Rodrigo were not good. In fact, I was convinced that she represented everything wrong with this new generation of pop musicians. It seemed unfair that another ex-Disney-Channel star could swan into the music industry and start scoring hits, just because she was already a household name among teens. After all, was there really anything original about ‘driver’s license’? As many others have commented, it sounds just like a Taylor Swift song. Meanwhile, ‘good 4 u’ sounded like a flagrant attempt to imitate Paramore. She later gave both artists songwriting credits, but this only highlighted the fact that she didn't have her own sound. And lyrically, she seemed to be yet another Gen Z artist resorting to I-hate-my-toxic-ex anthems. Thank God, she wasn’t interpolating nursery rhymes, but why did every song have to be so bitter? Where is the love???

I decided not to listen to her debut album Sour, and I had no desire to listen to her new album Guts. But then I started to see lots of people hyping up this album on Twitter (No Elon, I’m not calling it X), and I decided maybe I ought to give Rodrigo another chance. Maybe I’d got her all wrong. Maybe she had evolved into a mature and innovative artist. 

The title of the opening track ‘all-american bitch’ didn’t fill me with much optimism. And it starts off as a fairly unassuming pop ballad. But then it ambushes you with this big rock-flavoured belter of a chorus, followed by an externalised ‘internal scream’ over a semi-dissonant guitar solo. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by this detour into rock, but how authentic it sounded. I've since discovered that Rodrigo grew up on alt rock, and you can hear this passion in her voice and the instrumentation. While fellow Disney alumni Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato may cosplay as rock chicks, Rodrigo is the real deal.

This is clear not just from the opening track, but from the various exciting rock-infused songs on the first half of this album. Following track ‘bad idea right’ features some genuinely thrilling Foo-Fighters-esque riffage, while ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl’ turns out not to be a ballad at all but a grungy alt-pop banger with Nirvana energy. What separates these songs from their influences is Rodrigo’s creatively playful delivery and equally playful subject matter. From the abrupt stop after ‘I know I should stop’ to the dismissive delivery of ‘And I’m sure I’ve seen much hotter men/ but I really can’t remember when’, ‘bad idea right’ is packed with so many fun inflections as she toys with the idea of going back home with her ex. ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl’ is equally dynamic and creative with it’s semi-rapped verse, shout-sung chorus and nostalgic ‘ahh-ahhs’, while also serving as a unique anthem for homeschoolers who feel socially stunted (as opposed to another song about social anxiety at high school).

I would have loved a whole album of Rodrigo in rock mode. In fact, these are the best pop punk songs I’ve heard this decade. Unfortunately, the second half of the album sees Rodrigo opting mostly for pop ballads that sound like watered-down Lorde. Her USP – her playful vocal delivery – is cast aside on tracks like ‘the grudge’ and ‘logical’ in favour of a more subdued vocal performance. Combined with the stripped back instrumentation and generic bitter breakup lyrics, I find these tracks to be pretty dull.

That isn’t to say that Rodrigo can’t write a decent pop ballad though. ‘Vampire’ is an exceptional pop ballad, even if it is another I-hate-my-toxic-ex anthem. It has a great build-up (complete with a bridge. You don’t get many of those in pop anymore!) that leads to a soaring chorus that climaxes with the lines ‘bloodsucker, famefucker/ bleedin me dry like a Goddamn vampire’. Unlike the other ballads on this record, it makes full use of Rodrigo’s dynamic vocal range, while also sounding genuinely pained instead of just bitter. If all her ballads were this good, this would be an AOTY contender.