Olivia Rodrigo: Guts – One of the best and most observant pop songwriters out there

If you thought Sour was a royal flush, then this album is the winning goal in a penalty shoot-out

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Artist: Olivia Rodrigo
Genre: Pop/Rock
Label: Geffen

Leaning into guitar rock in a way that will surely lift the often derided genre to new and accepted heights, Olivia Rodrigo’s second album navigates the singer’s 19th year. This is good news, as the 20-year-old songwriter is remarkably skilled in outlining what she has described as “confusion, mistakes, awkwardness and good old-fashioned teen angst”. Guts is the follow-up to Rodrigo’s 2021′s huge mainstream success debut, Sour, which caught many people off guard with songs that encapsulated that same teenage angst with insight, humour, anxiety and wit. Aligned with the lyrics, however, was what many viewed as a throwback to guitar rock. Nestling between album piano ballads such as 1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back, Happier, Hope Ur OK and Enough For You were premium guitar rock/punk songs such as Brutal and Deja Vu.

Every song on Sour was relatable because you sensed – actually, you knew – that Rodrigo had walked through the emotional barbed wire and came out scratched and bleeding but still alert to the actions and consequences. In short, she had feminised rock music to the point where teenagers were as influenced by her as Rodrigo herself had been by the likes of Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, Fiona Apple and St Vincent. Factor in other influences such as the equally expressive but more intimate songs of Lorde and Taylor Swift, and Rodrigo was tailor-made for fusing the tender moments of falling in love (or lust) with the tougher parts of dealing with the fall out. “I always loved rock music,” she recently said in the New York Times, “and always wanted to find a way that I could make it feel like me and make it feel feminine and still tell a story and have something to say that’s vulnerable and intimate.”

If you thought that Sour was a royal flush, then Guts is the winning goal in a penalty shoot-out: the former could be a bit of skill and a lot of luck, the latter is the opposite. The two most well-known songs, so far, from the new album – Vampire, and Bad Idea Right? – set the tone: confusion invested with well-earned self-awareness. “You’re so convincing, how do you lie without flinching? I loved you truly – you gotta laugh at the stupidity,” she sings in Vampire; “I know we’re done, I know we’re through, but God, when I look at you ...” she sighs in Bad Idea Right?, a song that perfectly encapsulates the uncertainty of commitment; “I was too young, I was too soft, can’t take a joke, can’t get you off,” she says in Logical, a heartbreaker of a ballad.

The emotional turmoil goes on but Rodrigo has the smarts to wrap the right music around the words. The faux rap of Get Him Back! is a rare misstep and Love is Embarrassing is Paramore-lite but the final trio of The Grudge (betrayal write large – “it takes strength to forgive but I’m not sure I’m there yet”), Pretty Isn’t Pretty (expectations of femininity – “it’s in my phone, it’s in my head, it’s in the boys I bring to bed”) and Teenage Dream (growing older – “will I spend all the rest of my years wishing I could go back?”) highlight Rodrigo as one of the best and most observant pop songwriters out there.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture