Saturday, September 16, 2023

Olivia Rodrigo Spills Her ‘GUTS’ In Intimate Sophomore Album

Two years following the record-breaking success of her debut album ‘SOUR’, Olivia Rodrigo unveils ‘GUTS’: the highly anticipated, pop-punk and ballad-infused twelve track successor. 

The sophomore album sees Rodrigo at her most ambitious yet, the California-born singer-songwriter seemed to only have scratched the surface of her emotional complexities explored her debut. 

She embraces the vulnerability delineated in ‘SOUR’ at an even deeper level, creating a selection of tracks both deeply personal yet universally relatable. 

The album outlines a singularly unique account of euphoria, regrets, expectations, fears of inferiority, and the revelry of being young and forging your own path. Ultimately, ‘GUTS’ is an outstanding demonstration of Rodrigo’s impeccable storytelling and undeniable musical talent, further cementing her as the voice and lyrical pen of a generation.

The opening track, an acoustic, light-hearted song transitioning to victorious pop-rock angst anthem ‘All American Bitch’ is laced with imagery paying homage to the aesthetic and ideals of America in the 1960’s (“Coca-Cola bottles that I only use to curl my hair / I got class and integrity just like a goddamn Kennedy, I swear”). In perhaps one of Rodrigo’s most impressive feats as a songwriter, what begins as a celebration of female youth gradually undertakes a darker tone as Rodrigo sings about hiding her flaws and attempting to live up to a faultless ideal, depicting a timeless struggle of societal expectations of women. Through her lyrics, Rodrigo exemplifies how women are always expected to ‘keep it together’ and discouraged from showing negative emotions as not to spoil their image in fear of being labelled ‘hysterical: “I know my place, I know my place / And this is it / I don’t get angry when I’m pissed / I’m the internal optimist / I scream inside to deal with it”.

What appeared to be an uplifting statement of self-assuredness functions as a highly effective façade for a comment on female emotional expectations. Rodrigo alludes that the values a woman believes to be important within herself (“I’m grateful all the time / I’m sexy and I’m kind / I’m pretty when I cry”) are important for entirely different reasons when perceived by a man. Even when crying, when showing the most basic of human emotions, there seems to be a beauty standard for women to adhere to. Rodrigo critiques an unfortunately common, unspoken rule: ‘you can only show your sadness if you are pretty about it’.

‘Vampire’, the album’s lead single, opens and crescendos similarly to Rodrigo’s debut single ‘Drivers License’, with emotive chords building towards a rich, piano-led arrangement. Ruminating on a relationship with an advantageous ex-lover, Rodrigo introspectively explores the realisations and liberations that come with freeing oneself from a toxic relationship. Thick with vampiric imagery (“I should’ve known it was strange / You only come out at night”) the track captures the powerlessness Rodrigo felt as a consequence of her ex. After asking the sarcasm-drenched question “how’s the castle built off people you pretend to care about?”, Rodrigo continues to sing “the way you sold me for parts / as you sunk your teeth into me” recounting how she was exploited for personal gain, likening her ex to a “vampire”. Through this metaphor, Rodrigo effectively demonstrates the depth of the exhaustion that came with feeling bled dry by a borderline parasitic relationship. The chorus crescendos to a glorious climax and immediately drops, leaving Rodrigo belting at its peak in an effective payoff to the rich build of instruments: “Bloodsucker, fame-fucker, bleeding me dry like a goddamn vampire”. It is glorious, in both Rodrigo’s remarkable vocal abilities and lavish production.

The subsequent track, the light and appropriately angelic ‘Lacy’, is a delight. Filled with the soft, beautifully layered harmonies she has become renowned for, Rodrigo returns to the topic of inferiority complexes previously explored in ‘SOUR’’s ‘Jealously Jealousy’. Now, she sings of Lacy: a personified ideal woman who both captivates the narrator and fills her with a deep sense of unease and inferiority. Rodrigo employs imagery of both heaven and hell, likening Lacy to an “angel” whilst indicating her fascination is pernicious by labelling her as “the sweetest thing on this side of hell”. This sense of obsession is continued when Rodrigo sings: “Like perfume that you wear, I linger all the time / Watching, hidden in plain sight/ And ooh, I try, I try, I try / But it takes over my life, I see you everywhere / The sweetest torture one could bear”. The narrator can’t claw free from this unwanted obsession, despite many efforts to let go. She tries to rationalize her feelings, stating “…people are people / But it's like you’re made of angel dust”: the otherworldly Lacy seems to possess something the narrator can’t even comprehend they’re missing. The song builds to an emotional bridge of multi-layered vocalizing, in which the intensity of Rodrigo’s feelings truly shine vocally, before concluding with a final, gentle chorus variation: “Lacy, oh, Lacy, it's like you're out to get me / You poison every little thing that I do”, “I just loathe you lately / And I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you / Yeah, I despise my rotten mind and how much it worships you.

The riotous ‘Get Him Back!’ documents the duality of love and hatred reserved only for an ex-lover. The driving guitar hook, heavy bass, and relentless drums paired with Rodrigo’s layered, chant-like vocals create a pop-punk powerhouse of a song. The track showcases the conflicting feelings that transpire after reminiscing on euphoric experiences from a relationship, with Rodrigo’s equal desire to avenge herself and cause as much harm to her ex-lover as he caused to her. The polysemic title conveys a double meaning: does Rodrigo intend to win her ex back, or ruin his life? As it turns out, it’s both. Rodrigo constantly goes back and forth with her hatred and love for him, stating his negative qualities (“He had an ego and a temper and a wandering eye”) before following up with reasons tempting her to ignite their romance (“But he was so much fun and he had such weird friends”). Rodrigo expresses her ploy to get him back vengefully (“make him really jealous, make him feel bad”), before immediately switching to her intentions to get him back romantically, (I really miss him and it makes me real sad”). Most impressively, the bridge depicts the juxtaposing ideas Rodrigo has for both rekindling their relationship and retaliating: I wanna break his heartThen be the one to stitch it up Wanna kiss his face / With an uppercut”. It is a rip-roaring joy of a song.

The final track, ‘Teenage Dream’, is a tremendously crafted, introspective ballad signifying Rodrigo’s anxieties regarding the transition into adulthood. Whilst there are no faults with Rodrigo’s upbeat tracks, these emotional piano ballads hold a particular poignance which has come to be known as Rodrigo’s signature sound. Throughout the song, Rodrigo dwells on whether she is well-equipped enough to deal with the trials of adulthood. She doubts her abilities, virtues, and intentions, and ultimately poses us with an overarching question: when will youth stop acting as an armour? Rodrigo sings “but I fear that they already got all the best parts of me”, expressing her fear that, despite still having her whole life ahead of her, she has used up her greatness at her youthful age and will leave people forever expecting more than she can deliver. In an interview with the Guardian, Rodrigo stated whilst discussing the song: “They always used to praise me for being this precocious young girl […] That’s so much of the praise I get, that I’m so impressive ‘cos I’m so young doing this.” ‘Teenage Dream’ represents Rodrigo’s recognition “that it wasn’t always going to be that way and wondering what I would lose or how I would become less attractive in certain ways to people.”

The repeated final refrain “they all say that it gets better, it gets better the more you grow” coupled with Rodrigo asking “but what if I don’t?” is a poignant final note. It leaves us to consider the question, Rodrigo inviting the listeners to figure it out alongside her as she continues to grow and forge her own life. It is an exquisite conclusion to an exceptionally crafted album.



Elizabeth Page


Image: ‘GUTS’ Official Album Cover

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