Few artists are able to achieve a cultural moment with their debut album quite like Olivia Rodrigo did with her first album, SOUR. The album was released in the midst of the pandemic and took charts by storm globally. Spawning the instant hits driver’s license, deja vu, and good 4 u, SOUR solidified itself as a pop bible overnight. With such a successful introduction to the world of music, many people were highly curious about what direction Rodrigo would go in for her sophomore album.
On the 30th of June this year, Olivia dropped the lead single, vampire, from her upcoming album. The track set a precedent that while Rodrigo would be maintaining her lyrical focus on failed relationships, she would be taking a more confident and even cinematic approach to her music with the power ballad. She would later confirm that the new album was to be called GUTS, saying of the album that it is a ‘time capsule’ of the angst and turbulence she experienced at the ages of 18 and 19.
Despite her confirmation of the album being auto-biographical to the age it was written, upon my first listen to the album, I felt instantly like this was significantly more mature than SOUR, not just mature by two years. Overarchingly, GUTS feels like Rodrigo took all the magic she put into SOUR and used it as a launch pad to really flex her creative muscles.
Sonically, the album is decidedly more rock and punk-inspired, leaning into the sound present on previous tracks like brutal and good 4 u while amping up the dramatics and the maturity of the lyricism. The vibe of the album is somewhat reminiscent of punk-pop and rock sounds of the 90s and early 2000s, with some aspects of Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and even a dash of Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love thrown in.
The album opens with all-american bitch, a song that starts with a delicate guitar riff as Rodrigo sings gently. The chorus erupts into a hard electric guitar-addled flow that gives you whiplash in the best way. The song is a true encapsulation of the rest of the album, oscillating between punchy rock songs and intimate and self-analytical ballads. The song seamlessly blends into bad idea right? the second song on the album and its second single. The song details Olivia’s inner monologue as she convinces herself and her friends that it’s totally okay that she’s planning to hook up with an ex.
The song on most albums would be a stand-out, hence its distribution as a single, but on GUTS, it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the album, demonstrating what a solid effort this project is. The song feels evocative of the angsty female-driven music that I loved as a teenager (see: Shakira, Alanis, and Paramore) while being fresh and distinctly Gen-Z. While I am in my mid-twenties and hopefully know better than to hook up with my exes now, this song does make me feel nostalgic for the times as a younger adult when I would return to unmade beds and past mistakes. Just maybe remember that doing that IS actually a bad idea, loves.
Vampire follows, and God is this song a spectacle. When I first heard this song back in June, I was convinced that it was made for a live performance. The lyrics and the way Olivia delivers them just demand that the song is played for galvanised crowds screaming each word back to Rodrigo. While there have been some unhinged rumours this song is about Taylor Swift, it is a clear evisceration of an older boyfriend who seeked out Rodrigo because of her younger age and inexperience. Something I think many women can relate to.
Vampire is followed by lacy, a delicate ballad that contrasts vampire’s acidity with gentle lyrics comparing skin to puff pastry and eyes white like daisies. This song is somewhat of a companion to the song jealousy jealousy from her previous album in its theming, discussing feelings of envy and pining to be like another girl. This song, however, takes a stripped-back and emotional approach to these feelings. Up next is ballad of a homeschooled girl, which is far more upbeat and continues the sonic theme of the pendulum swinging between punk-infused angsty tracks and delicate ballads. Certainly an enjoyable track with some humours lyrics, including ‘every boy I like is gay’, the song laments the social awkwardness that comes with being homeschooled and missing out on some of the social robustness that comes with conventional education.
The album’s emotional apex comes with the next songs, making the bed and logical. These songs showcase Rodridgo’s ability to craft songs that have a Swift-esque ability to feel both so deeply personal to Olivia and so relatable to her listeners. These songs are powerful yet delicate, creating a juxtaposition that makes for an intimate and moving listening experience. Logical feels like a songwriting triumph beyond Olivia’s years, lamenting with mature clarity and pained hindsight that the love she had for the song’s inspiration was never logical. Needless to say, as a slut for a good breakup song, this will be in my regular rotation for quite some time.
In the latter half of the album, get him back and love is embarrassing, explore a more playful side of Olivia. Both songs are upbeat and beg to be played on hot summer days driving with the windows down. They come at a perfect time, switching up the energy of the album and reminding us that Olivia is not only good for a ballad. After the high of love is embarrassing, we are treated to the grudge, a song that is bitter and scathing. In this song, Rodrigo flexes her ability to lean into spiteful reminiscing of past loves, somewhat reminiscent of vampire but with a sharper yet more intimate edge. In some ways, the song reminds me of traitor from her first album, but with a greater sense of maturity and a deeper undercurrent of anger.
The final two songs, pretty isn’t pretty and teenage dream culminate in the overarching themes of the album, exploring self-image, the early days of adulthood, and heartbreak. Particularly, pretty isn’t pretty displays a common theme across the songs on GUTS, that Olivia is able to write about young adulthood with artistic maturity. Given that the album, like SOUR before it, was written almost exclusively by Rodrigo and her collaborator Dan Nigro, it is very impressive just how mature and emotionally cognizant Olivia is with her lyricism. Vocally, too, the album is a showcase of her ability to adapt her voice to stripped-back ballads while being equally comfortable belting over heavy guitar and drums.
Overarchingly, GUTS is a testament to one of pop music’s most intriguing and dynamic new faces. Many people, myself included, wondered if this album would feel like a rehashing of the sound delivered with SOUR, and while there are clear throughlines between both albums, GUTS is both more mature and more sonically daring in its delivery. I was somewhat sceptical of the title, but now I see that Olivia was spot on in naming the album as she did, it is undeniably a very gutsy project. She has managed to capture lightning in a bottle with this album, portraying the age at which it was written while being able to transform her experiences into timeless songs that will engage audiences of all ages.
This album is a true standout. Over 2023, we have had some amazing moments in music, but GUTS has delivered on a few things many other albums this year simply have not. It is instantly timeless, cohesive, has excellent lyricism, and feels both nostalgic and incredibly fresh, positioning it in the company of classic albums such as Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, Dónde Están los Ladrones? by Shakira, and Let Go by Avril Lavigne, all of which are essential listens for anyone who appreciates a woman not afraid to write with a scalpel.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – 5 Stars