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Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS Review

It was about 11:30pm on Friday night and I’d just moved my entire life back to my parents’ house. I’m sure there are purer settings to enjoy it in, but this felt like an entirely apt scenario to be committing to a full listen-through of Olivia Rodrigo’s newly-released sophomore album, GUTS. Rodrigo shot to fame back in 2021 with the single ‘driver’s licence’ and followed it up with SOUR, a visceral, full-bodied album that presented her as a pop punk-singer-songwriter capable of capturing the disenfranchised venom that course through the veins of Gen Z. Frontiers are always where you find them, and being back in the kitchen I grew up in about to embark on a new stage of my own life, I eagerly anticipated what Rodrigo had to say in GUTS.

The cover art for GUTS.

What Rodrigo has presented is a similar, punchy version of what she offered with her first album. The major thematic difference is her adaptation to fame and the way in which this interacts with her outlook on coming of age in the late 2010s/early 2020s. Fans will be pleased to know that this album starts with what, by the end, is a trademark of Rodrigo’s: a Neo-pop punk offering. This one goes by the name ‘all-american bitch’, and it combines her traditional singing ability with the gravity needed to deliver over rock-heavy riffs. Opening the album with this is clearly purposeful, as Rodrigo discusses the traits necessary for her to succeed in her career much to her chagrin (‘I’m as light as a feather, I’m as fresh as the air/Coca-Cola bottles that I only use to curl my hair/I got class and integrity/Just like a goddamn Kennedy’) and her own disenfranchisement with perfection being demanded from her.

The theme of frustration kicks straight through into the second track on the album (and the album’s second single), ‘bad idea right?’. Anyone who found themselves enjoying brutal or good 4 u on the first album will be overjoyed with ‘bad idea right?’, as Rodrigo returns to a rap-rock style delivery to discuss fucking her ex against her better instincts. It’s a distinctly Gen Z sound, mixing pop punk and nu metal with all a sleekness that are defining the 2020s - most noticeably in tech aesthetics and branding - making it perfect for virality; we’ve already seen an entire TikTok trend to the lyrics ‘Now I’m getting in the car, wrecking all my plans/And I really should stop- but I can’t’. Coining your own phrase is for wankers and academics, but the term ‘nu-pop’ feels like the best way I can describe it. The electropop sound of the 2010s is no longer wanted because there’s nothing to be happy about, but it’s a different rage to what Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit were shouting about in the 2000s. For me, this is Rodrigo’s best song to date. Backsliding with your ex isn’t a new experience by any means, but the ability to see everything they’re still doing and be in contact with them within the blink of an eye is, and for a generation who haven’t experienced any difference Rodrigo’s ability to sum this up in three minutes and four seconds allows her to speak for an entire generation. Combining this with her particular delivery makes it stand out as her magnum opus so far.

The lead single, ‘Vampire’, continues the thematic exploration of fame and frustration that GUTS commits to. The song handles an easy metaphor about being used in a relationship, but there are clear parallels to Rodrigo’s difficulty navigating fame throughout it too. She is not the first to liken the music industry to the bloodsucking creatures of the night, but ‘Vampire’ is an adrenaline hit of a song, building to a crescendo at the end of each verse in a way that leaves the listener uneasy. It is also the first track on the album in which Rodrigo’s inspiration from Taylor Swift is clearly noticeable - mainly through the dissection of unfortunate romance in her life - but the clear generational differences separate the two distinctly. Rodrigo’s willingness to be brash, offensive and abrasive with her verbiage continues her trend of feeling distinctly now.

But as far as comparisons to Taylor Swift go, the fourth and fifth tracks on the album - ‘lacy’ and ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl’ - have lyrics that could have been ripped directly from any of Swift’s earlier works. The former is an ethereal, acoustic ballad, centring on the protagonist’s obsession with a supernatural beauty (whom fans have speculated could be about Swift herself), whilst the latter tackles Rodrigo’s difficulty navigating social situations due to her acting career beginning at age 13 and being subsequently homeschooled. Both of these songs are really what compelled me to commit to this review. The opening three tracks are brilliant, as detailed above, and deserved to lead the album. It is ‘lacy’ and ballad… back-to-back, however, that guarantee its success. This is mainly done through their production. ‘lacy’ starts out in its simplest form, with Rodrigo’s voice clear, opining the eponymous figure. As the song goes on, though, Rodrigo’s voice is faded and reverbed, taking on a gossamer, almost sublime quality, that clearly dictates to the listener how the protagonist feels about lacy. It is nearing Wolf Alice’s ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ in its dreamlike-nature. Following the serenity of that song with ballad… and playing the two off each other then drags the listener kicking and screaming back to the real world, with its awkwardness to navigate and its situations to deal with. Rodrigo’s voice is bold in the song, as is necessary for pop, but the song teeters on drowning it out with its guitar riffs and drums, allowing it to sound like Rodrigo’s voice is distorted just to get through to us. It borders on Shoegaze at times, and whilst my bloody valentine would maybe balk at the suggestion, putting all your songs in lowercase isn’t the only thing shared here. Rodrigo basically has two songs in the 20+ she’s put out so far; touching, sublime ballad, and angsty nu-pop fuck-you. These two songs are the epitome of that, and only fall short of the same contiguous dichotomy that ‘deja vu’ and ‘good 4 u’ give you on the first album. Still, the strength of these two leaves us five songs in and on such a high that the album simply cannot fail after it.

The album isn’t without its flaws. As good as the first five songs are, the main drawback of the overall product is that the album labours a little bit through its back half. ‘making the bed’ is Rodrigo’s direct comment on her dealings with fame, but the sound of it fails to cut through in comparison to the album’s boisterous openings. ‘logical’ and ‘the grudge’ are ballads in the standard Rodrigo mould and lose themselves amongst the album’s more heartfelt alternatives (the aforementioned ‘lacy’ and the to-be-mentioned ‘teenage dream’). ‘love is embarrassing’ returns to Rodrigo’s other song type - the distinctive 2000s-inspired nu-pop - but is forgettable when placed at the end of the four others that made the album. It suffers greatly with its placement being directly after ‘get him back!’, another tremendous nu-pop outing about getting revenge on an ex that solidifies Rodrigo’s foremost standing in this genre. The end of the back half is, however, dragged to a worthwhile listen by ‘pretty isn’t pretty’, a poignant, visceral song that criticises feminine beauty standards. Every generation has songs akin to this and they remain necessary to highlight the everlasting inequalities that are draped throughout our society. Rodrigo’s willingness to discuss this with sincerity again showcases her ability to speak for an entire generation.

The album ends with ‘teenage dream’, a direct confrontation of what has clearly been troubling Rodrigo most in her new-found life - what is the world we’re living in? It rounds the album off in a way I thought to be most interesting as she lays her fears out clearly for listeners to hear. With the last lines on the entire album being ‘They all say it gets better/It gets better the more you grow/Yeah, they say that it gets better/It gets better, but what if I don’t?’, the audience are left ruminating. Rodrigo provides no nice answer, no tying it off with a cute bow, no leaving us on a high with a bolshy, punky ode to all the boys who have come before. No, this album, full of cutting social insight and the awkward situations we all secretly enjoy being in, commits fully to a key aspect of Gen Z’s upbringing: how the fuck are we meant to deal with it all? We’ve heard it all before - biggest mental health crisis the west has ever seen, crumbling institutions, hospitals and schools that don’t work, Governments laughing in our faces. I’d argue that ‘They say it gets better but what if I don’t?’ could be graffiti’d on the walls of every major city between LA and London for its poignancy to this generation’s struggles. It cements Rodrigo’s relatability and understanding of the existential issues that sit with all of us under the age of 25.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence with some abstract star rating or points out of ten that this album arbitrarily feels like for me. I’ve laid it out for you above. It has a tremendous opening five tracks, there are three I think we could lose, and there are three others that I think round off the overwhelming grandiosity of the future that Rodrigo is clearly having difficulty coming to terms with. I started off this listen with ‘she could be the voice of a generation’ and I can’t exactly say I don’t think that now. The album isn’t perfect, it’s same-y and unfortunately drags by about song nine, but when it is good then it is tremendous. Whatever work comes out next from Rodrigo might need to be a bit more distinct to avoid sounding like she’s beating the same drum, but GUTS has solidified that she understands how to voice the existential issues facing Gen Z with the want to be happy-go-lucky and deal with our relationship issues like everyone else did.


Sam Mandi-Ghomi is co-founder and co-editor of Left Brain Media. You can find his other work here.

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