When Olivia Rodrigo, a child star on Disney Channel’s High School Musical series, decided to step into music, it wasn’t unforeseen. She had a strong fanbase and the industry connections to get started in the music industry. We just didn’t realize her talent, at least not before the release of SOUR’s lead single, “Driver’s License.” It became an instant classic and cemented her as the voice of Gen-Z listeners everywhere. GUTS is a strong follow up to SOUR, the fastest album in history in which all the songs were certified RIAA Platinum.
Exemplified by the lead single, “vampire” GUTS sets up the instrumentals of the rest of the album. The first half of “vampire” has a softer, more mellow piano ballad mixed with a bass drum that builds up the post-breakup punk rock aesthetic. Both sides of the track’s instrumentals make up both sides of GUTS. Tracks like “lacy,” “making the bed,” “love is embarrassing,” “the grudge,” “pretty isn’t pretty,” and “teenage dream” all use slower piano ballads and mostly express themes of heartbreak, insecurities and melancholy. This is a new era for Rodrigo as her experiments with softer piano ballads bring more life and depth into her music. It’s a step in the right direction and showcases just how much she’s grown in the two years since SOUR. The lyric “Bloodsucker, fame f***** / Bleedin’ me dry like a goddamn vampire” became an instant success on social media platforms, generating a lot of buzz while building hype for GUTS. Frankly, it deserves to, with it being so honest, relatable and charged.
I’d never find lyrics like “The way you sold me for parts / As you sunk your teeth into me” in SOUR, highlighting a maturity and emotional depth that Rodrigo hasn’t reached before. “lacy” is another example that highlights this new direction that Rodrigo has gone in, with somber vocals and a soft-pop production that highlight her insecurities. The “lacy” object that Rodrigo points her insecurities towards is profound. Lyrics like “Watching, hidden in plain sight / And ooh I try I try I try / But it takes over my life” don’t initially jump out as a losing dynamic with “lacy.” Anything that has “lacy” over it, either a specific woman or a partner’s ex makes her insignificant.
There are a few times where Rodrigo’s blazing new styles don’t come to fruition. “teenage dream” is the project’s closer, and while it has great ballad-like production, its lyricism is behind the curve. “the grudge” paints a similar picture, with her lyrics being less personable, and more generalized to anyone. In reading the lyrics alone, you wouldn’t distinguish this as Rodrigo’s track compared to Taylor Swift, Lorde or Lana del Ray. It misses that essence that could only come from Rodrigo. Using piano ballads to express the roller coaster emotions of teenage heartbreak isn’t new, but her experiments fail to tap into these deeper emotions. It’s a great first starting point, but these tracks didn’t express anything new or bring any new emotion into the final album.
On the flip side, Rodrigo leans heavier into the post-breakup punk rock aesthetic with more lyrically mature tracks. Rodrigo hasn’t left her trademark punk rock; “get him back!” is a personal favorite with its punchy lyrics and electronic riffs. I love the contrasting lyrics “I wanna key his car / I wanna make him lunch / I wanna break his heart / Then be the one to stitch it up” perfectly express the broad range of emotions that any jaded person would have. The contrasting lyrics are like going up and down, just like a rollercoaster does, and it’s just like having a rollercoaster of emotions. Rodrigo’s vocals are more nuanced in “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” switching from screaming to singing and eventually whispering too. It’s another way she adds depth to the production, and it mimics the broad range of emotions that Rodrigo expresses. “bad idea right?” takes this one step further with the “Oh oh oh” high-pitched whispering, the soft “f*** it, it’s fine” where the instrumentals cut, and the screaming “but can’t two people reconnect?” to further accentuate her broad range of emotions. She’s improved on expressing her agony, using differing pitches to craft her message. It’s evident that this punk-rock style is still her trademark, and that she’s reached new heights.
Overall, GUTS avoids the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that a lot of major artists have. Rodrigo didn’t remake the wheel, but rather sought to expand her trademark teenage angst and Gen-Z relatability in various ways. Her experiments with more somber vocals and ballad-like production have mostly paid off, bringing more depth and emotions alongside her music. It’s clear that Rodrigo has grown massively in the two years after SOUR’s release. Her lyricism, complexity and emotional volatility mesh together to create an album that is more perceptive, mature and sensible than anything previously released.