The singer's debut is rank with heartache
Since Olivia Rodrigo burst onto the scene with "driver's license," there's been a sense of inevitability about her impending success. True to form, just a few months after the song's release, she's built on that momentum and released her first LP.
SOUR is a blend of hyper-specific teenage angst and outpouring of universal longing and bitterness that feels cathartic and bittersweet — not unlike a sour candy, bursting open in your mouth, making you wince and then smile at the absurdity of it all as tears stream down your face.
Rodrigo makes the smart move of beginning the album with "brutal," a song that's a relative outlier against the rest of the album. Gritty and bearing the influences of glitchy riot grrrl and early 2000s pop punk, it's a confessional track that immediately places the listener into the strangeness of Rodrigo's current position, reminding us that she's actually kind of going through a lot.
Olivia Rodrigo - brutal (Lyric Video) www.youtube.com
Dealing with teenage angst has never been easy, and you're placed in an entirely new dimension of pressure when you're under a microscope and widely expected to become the next global superstar. "I feel like no one wants me, and I hate the way I'm perceived," Rodrigo spits, her voice processed through grainy filters. "I hate every song I write." The song's lyrics are a bit cringy, but they'll also ring true to anyone who has been, well, young. They're made more dramatic by the fact that she's now being perceived by the entire world.
After confessing she hates every song she writes, Rodrigo goes on to deliver an album of heart-wrenching bangers. Her music stands apart from most standard Disney stars before her for a few reasons. Firstly, her voice has a soft velvety quality and an elasticity that sets her apart from other sad song crooners like Lorde and Phoebe Bridgers, who favor whispery high notes; comparisons to a young Adele are perhaps more apt because her voice is a truly acrobatic instrument.
When she sings "You've betrayed me" on "traitor," her voice seems to swell and soar. It sounds almost too big for her age or her body, which adds to the whole effect: This is just a small, young person who's hitting on a wave of something far bigger than her. It's brutal. It's also written in the bones of the American pop music industry. Rodrigo is the machine's next big hit, but she seems to be well aware of the precarious position she's in.
Second, the production takes Rodrigo's already very solid songwriting abilities and heightens them to post genre pop perfection. Producer Dan Nigro layers on delicate piano and guitar while also threading in innovative darker sounds like gritty bass and ecstatic synths. One would imagine that Rodrigo will one day work with Jack Antonoff, another producer who is excellent at surrounding a specific brand of female songwriter (think Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift) with luxurious and hyper-modern sounds that elevate their songs to stratospheric heights. Like Antonoff and Swift, Nigro and Rodrigo are experts at maneuvering tension and release, building stark contrasts into their music while never losing the thread of emotion that ties it all together.
Speaking of Swift, she is a clear presence here. She has a songwriting credit on "1 step forward, 3 steps back," and the album's song titles — all in lowercase — immediately evoke comparisons to Swift's quarantine masterpiece folklore. It's easy to imagine Rodrigo's career going the way of Swift's if she's able to maintain the trajectory and momentum she has already conjured.
But for now, Rodrigo is very much eighteen, and the album is hyper-focused on one event in her life, which has played out on a very public stage. The whole album revolves around her alleged breakup from Joshua Bassett, her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star, who apparently broke her heart badly enough to trigger an eleven-song album that picks apart the hurt and the fallout from that break from every angle.
Rodrigo questions whether his relationship with his new girlfriend started while they were together. She wonders if he is using the same lines and songs he used on her on his new girlfriend on the deliciously bittersweet "deja vu," which takes notes from the balance of glitchiness and smoothness used most masterfully by artists like Radiohead.
Olivia Rodrigo - deja vu (Official Video) www.youtube.com
The whole album is all the more powerful because, for the most part, Rodrigo never sings from the perspective of a victim. Instead, she's a woman scorned, fueled by a sense of righteous bitterness that feels cathartic and refreshing.
She's never unreasonably cruel — she wishes her ex (and his new girlfriend) the best, and resolutely refuses to vilify the other woman. Never is she sharper and more relentless than on "good 4 u," which finds Rodrigo yelling at points, utilizing a pop punk guitar rhythm that's sure to have Converse-wearing crowds of teenage girls jumping up and down in the general admissions section whenever concerts open again. "Maybe I'm too emotional," Rodrigo sings. "Your apathy's like a wound in salt."
Olivia Rodrigo - good 4 u (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Maybe she's too emotional, but clearly her emotions have been met with open arms by the world, and the best fuck you of all is that she's been able to metabolize her heartbreak into a massive career. Like fellow super-young superstar Billie Eilish, she's now in the strange position where her innermost thoughts and feelings are going to be broadcast before crowds of millions.
"Stupid emotional obsessive little me," she sings on "enough for you." "All I ever wanted was to be enough for you." It's one of the more vulnerable moments on the album, and Rodrigo's clearly willing to pour out her innermost insecurities. Sometimes, though, you wonder who she's really singing about.
Olivia Rodrigo - enough for you (live) www.youtube.com
"I don't want your sympathy, I just want myself back," she sings later in the song. Lines like these remind you that Rodrigo is only eighteen and that her sense of identity is still completely in flux. It's hard to blame her for being all over the place or for experimenting with many different genres on this first musical effort.
After all, she just went through a pandemic too. She's living in an unsettling time when the whole world itself is going through a terrible breakup. It's a perfect storm and one that thousands of young people around the world are going through together. Think about that, and Rodrigo's widespread appeal starts to make more sense.
Rodrigo is clearly singing for her generation, dropping references to Glee and digital influencers. The song "jealousy, jealousy" addresses the surreal experience of being on social media, constantly comparing yourself to others, and questioning your own identity in a world where every influencer seems to have her personal brand completely figured out.
Yet the album always returns to its fundamental core at the end: the breakup, the traumatic and shocking loss that opened whatever portal this album emerged from. Listening to this album is a window into a formative point in Rodrigo's life. Through these songs, we're watching her evolve and experience true pain in real-time.
First loves and first breakups can shape the trajectory of the rest of a person's life, and it's clear that this one has done that for Rodrigo, to say the least. Even if she gets over Bassett, she'll still have to sing these songs in front of crowds — at least "drivers license" — for the entirety of her career.
At times, the theme feels a little tired. One pretty, bitter, vulnerable breakup song comes after another, and they blend into what almost seems like an endless cycle of repeated themes and storylines. But can you blame Rodrigo for that? She's clearly in the midst of an earth-shattering experience, and the songs feel like they were written amidst a fever dream of emotion, sudden success, and intense pressure.
By the end of the album, she's bitterer than ever: "favorite crime" is an acknowledgment of just how much of herself she sacrificed for the relationship, but it also feels like the beginnings of letting go. The last song, "hope ur ok," zooms out, focusing on kids she used to know who came from an abusive family. It seems like a resolute attempt to expand the album's scope beyond her individual worldview, which already belies a sense of maturity that will hopefully only blossom and grow as time goes on.
But for now, Rodrigo is exactly where she needs to be: Deep in her feelings, and carrying us along for what's sure to be a wild ride.