Album Review

Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS

The opposite sex is still firmly caught in her crosshairs, but there’s a tongue wedged firmly in cheek.

Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS

There are many ways to grow up, but perhaps the most telling is when you start to embrace life’s nuance. A teen heartbreak can feel like the obliterating, very literal end of the world; come your twenties, the grey areas and glimmers of self-awareness start to poke through. “I feel like I grew 10 years between the ages of 18 and 20,” Olivia Rodrigo has said ahead of second album ‘GUTS’ - and it shows.

Where all-conquering debut ‘SOUR’ put life-ruining, soul-sucking boys at its centre - boys who betray you; boys who make you doubt yourself; boys boys boys boys boys - on ‘GUTS’, the opposite sex is still firmly caught in her crosshairs but there’s a tongue wedged firmly in cheek here that wasn’t present before. Take superlative recent single ‘bad idea right?’, which channels Wolf Alice’s chanty, moshing sass to such a level that our ‘Liv literally threw its launch party at Camden’s Hawley Arms. Thematically, it’s more of the same; a bad dude that keeps reeling you back in. But add some girl gang vocals, butter-wouldn’t-melt asides, and the general vibe that - as opposed to LP1 - this is albeit temporarily about what’s good for her, and you’ve got something of an attitude glow-up.

Across the record, the winking lyrical smarts are in full flow. On ‘get him back!’, ‘Sucker’-era Charli XCX melodies combine with the sort of punchlines Wet Leg would be proud of: “I want to kiss his face with an uppercut / I wanna meet his mom, and tell her her son sucks”. On opener ‘all-american bitch’, she sends up ludicrous female standards with a faux-angelic chorus that doesn’t even try to conceal its eyeroll (“I’m grateful all the time / I’m sexy and I’m kind / I’m pretty when I cry”), while ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl’ is knowingly funny like all the best outsider teen movies (“Thought your mom was your wife / Called you the wrong name twice”).

It’s notable that all the reference points here seem to come from UK indie; though there’s still a good whack of Ol-Rod ballads to be found, it sounds like she’s been voraciously soaking up Britain’s more recent guitar heroes in the interim - not least because the bendy guitars of ‘…homeschooled girl’ sound bizarrely like Peace. It could make for something of a discrepancy between ‘GUTS’’ two main modes. However, aside from the middle one-two of ‘making the bed’ and ‘logical’, which both walk down fairly standard romantic ballad paths, Olivia manages to inject her slower numbers with enough chutzpah to tie them into the more obvious bangers.

Lead single ‘vampire’ is the finest example of this, and a worthy contender for 2023’s best pop song: a track that could so-easily have stayed as a piano lament and stopped there, but instead keeps pushing for bigger and bigger crescendos. Elsewhere, ‘lacy’ is a bitter, almost stalkerish lip curl of a wolf in sweet, sheep’s clothing; ‘pretty isn’t pretty’ is self-lacerating to the sort of deceptive mid-tempo that’s built for driving with the top down, and closer ‘teenage dream’ takes the frustration of ‘brutal’ and finds its fretful flipside: “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re only 19 / But I fear that they already got all the best parts of me”.

Kicking into a cathartic purge of a finale, it’s an album closer that recalls Billie Eilish’s redemptive ‘Happier Than Ever’ but with all the worry left in. It leaves ‘GUTS’ very much with an ellipsis hanging at the end of it; a stepping stone in the singer’s journey that shows her growing but not yet entirely grown. But really, despite its own anxieties, Olivia’s second is best categorised by a line in its opening track, before the neuroses can set in. In the words of ‘all-american bitch’: “I know my place and this is it”.

Tags: Olivia Rodrigo, Reviews, Album Reviews

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