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Olivia Rodrigo is back. After her 2021 debut album “SOUR,” the world had been holding its breath for what the young singer/songwriter would come up with next. The result? An album of two halves, two moods, and one that, in almost every way, lives up to the impossible expectations she set for herself.
With her first album, Rodrigo quickly became one of Gen Z’s loudest voices: her breakup-based ballad zeroed in on experiences listeners her age could relate to — earning their driver’s license being a prime example. “GUTS” continues, if not amplifies, this trend. Rodrigo has expanded her music’s themes to body image issues in “pretty isn’t pretty,” social embarrassments in “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” ex-longing in “bad idea right?” and more.
The relatability doesn’t just stop at the lyrics either: “GUTS” is rife with early-2000’s sounding pop-punk themes that ache with teenage nostalgia. The chorus of “get him back!” flaunts a distinctly Avril Lavigne sound, with distorted power chords fronting a stable, driving drum beat. “love is embarrassing” may be even better, with a chorus that’s impossibly catchy and a mood that vividly recalls the teen angst of days past.
The power of this album, though, isn’t just in its catchy louder melodies — after all, that’s only half the story. As “SOUR” proved, Rodrigo also has the deftness to write gut-wrenching ballads. “GUTS” shines because it does both. Rodrigo will yell her heart out about how “love’s fuckin’ embarrassing,” and then her very next song will recount a genuinely heartfelt lament about “flowers filled with vitriol.” Rodrigo’s beautiful lyrics allow her to straddle this duality between melancholy and powerful.
To dive deeper into the softer side of “GUTS,” take a look at “making the bed.” One of the album’s hardest-hitting songs, it is not only an example of how delicate Rodrigo’s writing and singing can be, but also of how much chemistry exists between her and her producer, Daniel Nigro. The latter pairs the first verse with quietly pulsating synth chords and a comfortable, mellow guitar in a way that complements Rodrigo’s lilting voice — a voice describing a life turned hollow and involuntary, with lyrics like “Every good thing has turned into something I dread / And I’m playing the victim so well in my head.” While we all love a headbanging chorus, the strongest aspect of “GUTS” may actually be hidden in these pockets of introspection, where Rodrigo speaks to us not through a yell or distorted guitar, but directly from her heart.
And then there are the couple of songs that attempt to cross into both halves. “vampire,” the lead single from “GUTS,” retains a slow piano beginning before adding a driving bass drum that heralds in a song-wide build up. “vampire” feels a little bit like Rodrigo trying to stuff the two halves of her album into one song, and the result is…okay. It will probably retain its status as the most-streamed song of her album, but in many ways it’s a preview that sets the bar too low; the dueling energies create more of a clash than a cohesive mix.
The other song in this category, “teenage dream,” closes out the album; however, unlike “vampire,” this track showcases the best of both worlds. The piano intro is already more complex than most of “SOUR,” and early lines like “When am I gonna stop being great for my age and just start being good?” represent one of Rodrigo’s biggest skills as a writer: her words that, because of their simplicity rather than despite it, cut straight to core emotion.
The end of the song — and the end of the album — consists of an unfettered crescendo built on the phrase “they all say that it gets better.” What better way to encompass the Gen Z experience? Rodrigo’s “GUTS” is an album that complains and rants and cries and yells and ends not in reassurance, but in uncertainty. In other words, “GUTS” is good because “GUTS” is real.
—Staff writer Alessandro M. Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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