There are a million reasons why a musical artist catches lightning and sends a song to the top of the charts: Maybe they’re a superstar with a bulletproof commercial offering, or they’re an unknown riding cultural headwinds to a strong reaction, or they’re somewhere in between, with the right TikTok challenge at the right time. Sometimes, though, they’re just that good — commandingly, undeniably good — with a song that showcases that talent.
That’s how it felt in January 2021, when the co-star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series released her debut single.
With the still-dazzling “Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo arrived as a fully formed pop savant, capable of piercing turns of phrase, major-key choruses and bridges that stop you in your tracks and force you to sway along. Of course her debut album, 2021’s Sour, was just as impressively detailed and sumptuously catchy; of course songs like “good 4 u” and “Deja Vu” became just as ubiquitous on top 40 radio and streaming services; of course the best new artist Grammy was in the bag; of course the first headlining shows were giddy shout-alongs. With a preternatural talent like Rodrigo, the artistic and commercial successes felt predestined from the moment we first heard, “‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.”
With Guts, Rodrigo’s feverishly anticipated sophomore album, the rocket ship keeps climbing higher and higher: if Sour represented a rock-solid, no-skips debut, its follow-up is a bigger and better sequel, more confident and gripping in almost every way. The personal stakes are higher as Rodrigo gestures at the life changes (and expectations) that her newfound stardom have produced, but she matches them by thrusting her songwriting into more adventurous, and rewarding, territory.
Rodrigo expands upon the heartbreak central to Sour on songs like “Logical” and “Love Is Embarrassing,” but also addresses fame leeches (“Vampire”), social awkwardness (“Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”), body image standards (“Pretty Isn’t Pretty”) and pre-adulthood anxieties (“Teenage Dream”), among other topics. Just like he did on Sour, Dan Nigro, Rodrigo’s main studio collaborator, helps push the right buttons while getting out of the way of her towering songwriting, as the pair hopscotch through pop-punk, new wave, indie-folk and hushed balladry without sounding haphazardly constructed or dulling any one-liners.
Because that’s what stands out the most on the first few listens of Guts: the way Rodrigo can bring a lyric to life with a gut-punch metaphor or a pitch-perfect vocal delivery. That gift stood out on Sour, and has sharpened on its follow-up. “I am built like a mother, and a total machine/ I feel for your every little issue, I know just what you mean,” she sings on opener “All-American B–ch,” crystallizing the impossibility of Relatable Female Pop Stardom in one lilting rhyme. On “The Grudge.,” Rodrigo flattens a breakup into, “We both drew blood, but man, those cuts were never equal.” And on “Making the Bed,” Rodrigo distills the ephemeral nature of success: “Another perfect moment that doesn’t feel like mine/ Another thing I forced to be a sign.” Guts has plenty of potential singles to join the already-minted Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits “Vampire” and “Bad Idea Right?,” but those lyrics — the ones that feel painfully perfect, that you want to write down for your own inspiration — are even more plentiful.
That remarkable songwriting ability is what ultimately separated Rodrigo when “Drivers License” launched, and what makes the sky her limit today. With Guts, Rodrigo has released the most complete pop album of the year, and nudged her trajectory even higher.
All 12 songs on the standard edition of the album are top-notch, but which are the early standouts? Here is a preliminary ranking of every song on Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts.
The finger-picked folk-pop that popped up a few times on Sour — and gets showcased in the verses of “All-American B–ch” — blooms into view on “Lacy,” which focuses on Rodrigo’s feelings of jealousy and finds her voice dropping down to a scornful whisper. The morphing lyrics of the chorus represent the songwriting triumph here, with Rodrigo swapping out the majority of the lines of the first hook as she continues describing the desperation of her envy.
Large swaths of Sour contained the vitriol aimed at a romantic partner that can once again be heard on lead single “Vampire,” and while Rodrigo takes more shots at an ex on “Logical,” she places some of the blame on her own plate: “I know I could’ve stopped it all, God, why didn’t I stop it all?” she asks wistfully by the song’s conclusion. Nigro’s production helps clarify Rodrigo’s knotted feelings on this one, the piano balladry stacking new elements before falling away at opportune times for prime emotional impact.
“Making the Bed”
Unlike Sour, Guts finds Rodrigo crafting songs as an A-lister with multiple Grammys and Hot 100 chart-toppers in her possession; a song like “Making the Bed,” then, attempts to intertwine the pressures of pop superstardom with those of any 20-year-old who’s felt the urge to break away from a known reality. “I got the things I wanted/ It’s just not what I imagined,” Rodrigo laments amidst midtempo percussion, chiming guitar fuzz and backgrounded keys, after describing a recurring dream where the brakes go out during a city drive.
“It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong,” Rodrigo admits on “The Grudge,” plucked strings encapsulating her racing thoughts as she does everything she can — form too-late comebacks to evaporated arguments, daydream about an overdue apology, cling onto details like they’re part of a crime scene — to find some solace in a crushing breakup. The vulnerability is beautifully rendered on “The Grudge,” with details leaping out of Rodrigo’s mouth and a harrowing final line that drops into oblivion.
“Pretty Isn’t Pretty”
On “Pretty Isn’t Pretty,” Rodrigo practically declares, “God, it’s still brutal out here”: she rattles off a handful of ways that modern society can make young women feel like they’re not enough, and offers no easy solutions to the insecurities lurking within every glimpse of a mirror or glance at a phone. Kudos to Rodrigo for refusing to sugarcoat any aspect of such cursed expectations — when she arrives at the line, “None of it matters and none of it ends/ You just feel like s–t over and over again,” her voice lifts upward with pissed-off acceptance.
Rodrigo was seven years old when Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” topped the Hot 100 in 2010, and unlike that starry-eyed smash, this new “Teenage Dream” reckons with the doubts involved with growing out of teen-icon status, Rodrigo’s numerous rhetorical questions prodding at a world that she fears has already pigeonholed her artistry. Guts ends on a gorgeously intimate piano ballad that rages against the dying of the light midway through, a chorus of voices growing in volume and the keys joined by some snare rolls.
“Love Is Embarrassing”
New wave fans — and anyone who’s cried over an ex, then looked back later and let out in disbelief, “I was crying over them??” — are going to embrace “Love is Embarrassing,” in which Rodrigo once again tinkers with her delivery and scoops up a bridge that’s downright Devo-esque. Her ability to marry music-geek genre exploration with diary-ready accounts of young heartbreak (“You found a new version of me/ And I damn near startеd World War III/ Jesus, what was I even doing?” she asks herself incredulously) remains second to none.
“Bad Idea Right?”
Released in August as the second single from Guts, “Bad Idea Right?” sounds fresher with each new listen: Rodrigo’s vocal performance in particular reveals its nuance over time, as she chats through her self-awareness of the wrong choices she’s about to make and keeps the listener in her corner with her messy confessional. In the context of the Guts tracklist, “Bad Idea Right?” carries the careening guitars over from the hook of “All-American B–ch” and simmers them into a chug, the grand opening steadying itself for the long haul.
“Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”
Rodrigo’s affinity for ‘90s alt-rock can be heard most clearly on the post-chorus of “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” — that repetition of “It’s social suicide, it’s social suicide,” followed by the lilting “AH-ah’s,” immediately recalls bands like Everclear and Third Eye Blind. But the entire song carries a sense of sonic and lyrical purpose, as Rodrigo expertly crafts her highly relatable tales of awkwardness with full-band power. Plenty of the lyrics are blurted-out eye-roll moments, but then a couplet like “I hate all my clothes/ Feels like my skin doesn’t fit right over my bones” will hit with a wallop.
It’s no coincidence that “Vampire” is positioned as the third track on Guts, just like “Drivers License” was on Sour — both are emotionally heightened, show-stopping lead singles that require a bit of prologue before blowing the doors off of their surroundings. The theatricality of “Vampire” is what distinguishes the No. 1 hit from its spiritual predecessor, though: this intimate kiss-off grows wider and spirals toward heavy resolution, while simultaneously sounding primed for a fang-filled Broadway performance. “Vampire” was a dramatic return, and in the context of Guts, a daring high point.
It’s a wind-swept folk hymn before abruptly turning into a pop-punk thrasher; it’s a tongue-in-cheek ode to how young women are never supposed to project dissatisfaction, and then curdles into a literal scream. “All-American B–ch” twists and turns, but just like “Brutal” on Sour, the track is a tour de force album opener that once again demonstrates Rodrigo’s singular gift for genre refraction. A special tip of the cap to the outro lines that riff on the many award acceptance speeches she’s already given: “All the time, I’m grateful all the time/ I’m sexy and I’m kind/ I’m pretty when I cry.”
“Get Him Back!”
The song title earns that exclamation point: “Get Him Back!” is a dizzyingly fun anthem about exacting revenge on an ex… or reuniting with him… or both, maybe even at the same time. Rodrigo rollicks through the verses, almost rapping her account of a joyfully misguided romance, before a stomp-along hook arrives with an array of voices buoying her wordplay; the extended bridge here, with Rodrigo exclaiming “Wanna kiss his face / With an uppercut!” as the refrain builds up to a breakdown, marks one of the most euphoric pop moments of the album, and very likely of all 2023.
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