While it seems like more and more teen stars are rising to popularity every day, it feels like it’s been a very long time since someone had the kind of overnight success and overwhelming support that 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo is currently experiencing. The closest comparison might be someone like Billie Eilish, but even she had indie buzz before her breakout record. An actress known primarily for Disney+ exclusive, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that’s a real title), Rodrigo’s proper debut single “drivers license” was the kind of once-in-a-career, magical moment that every artist strives for, her vulnerable and heart-wrenching songwriting becoming a cultural phenomenon and forming an emotional connection to listeners of all ages. While most of her debut album, SOUR, is in the same vein – ex-partner Joshua Bassett should be running for the hills and taking shelter underground, as Rodrigo has multiple diaries’ worth of vitriol to throw – her powerful tone, beautifully desolate vocal breaks and imperfections, and poetic lyrical flips that would make her idol Taylor Swift proud make this one a deeply moving and cathartic experience that should bring anyone back to the days of their most devastating high-school breakup. To whomever believes young love is often trivial, let me present Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR in counterpoint.
Intentionally, the album kicks off with its most chaotic and messy track. “brutal” feels a bit like screaming out all of the initial anger after a bad day before taking a deeper, more introspective dive into what went wrong, which takes place over the course of the rest of the album. Rodrigo’s pop-punk influence surprised people when she dropped it for the first time on current number-one hit single “good 4 u,” but this one goes even heavier, Rodrigo shouting more than singing with a grinding guitar riff and a heavy dose of distortion behind her. With an audible eye-roll, Rodrigo sets the notion that teenage years are fun and frivolous on fire and bluntly lays out all of her insecurities. For someone who wants to hear Rodrigo’s stunning vocals more than anything else, the track is going to be the one returned to least for this listener – the heavy distortion on the chorus makes everything a little bit muddy and things could have been mixed better, but it was likely left in as an intentional choice serving the narrative of the album, which works out well. The first words we hear are Rodrigo saying she wants it to be “messy,” after all. It certainly mirrors the twisted web of drama she unfurls over the rest of the album’s runtime.
Follow-up song “traitor” dives right back into Rodrigo lying forlorn on the floor, a campfire-side acoustic loop accentuating all the sweet spots in her voice. It’s appropriate the song comes right before “drivers license” in the tracklist, because there are quite a few things that mirror the appeal of the former. Rodrigo has become the master of the bridge, mostly because she uses it as an explosion of emotion right after some of her most downtrodden, whispered vocal moments. There’s something so special about a flowery songwriter like Rodrigo just simply stating her ex’s betrayals in as plain language as possible, then slamming the point home with the central stunner of a lyric: “Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor.” That mark of an actress behind the magically vulnerable spark of Rodrigo’s tangible, freshly-wounded passion is ratcheted up even further because we hear it develop over the course of the album – many of these tracks contain some kind of time frame reference to how long it has been since the breakup, and we get to hear her process things in chronological order.
“drivers license” in another medium could be an Oscar-worthy performance – hearing her chorus switch from contemplative, to angry, to completely devastated is the most intoxicating thing about it past that serotonin rush of a harmonized bridge. Her other singles “deja vu” and “good 4 u” more than hold up as well, standing as some of the strongest tracks here. The former is the track where Rodrigo most confidently relishes in having the upper hand, tearing her unoriginal ex apart for reusing date nights and romantic moments, bolstered by one of the melodies where Rodrigo best gets to show off her range and some sassy and sarcastic inflections. “good 4 u” was one of the most pleasant musical surprises in recent memory, Rodrigo proving she could cover something entirely different than what she was known for and pull it off so exceedingly well. Comparisons to Paramore’s “Misery Business” have sprung up online, and her belted chorus genuinely does put her in a similar place as a powerhouse rock frontwoman like Hayley Williams. Letting her many frustrations spill out under a very thinly veiled sheen of positivity adapts perfectly to the sound, and the climactic “sociopath” accusation is easily one of the best musical moments of the year.
Rodrigo’s obvious Taylor Swift influence in her songwriting manifests most clearly on the track “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” which borrows a piano part from Swift’s own reputation standout “New Years’ Day.” The subtle tempo switch keeps things exciting on another somber ballad, especially as it mirrors the push and pull of the tumultuous relationship that Rodrigo describes here as she relatably overanalyzes the arguments and resents being unable to simply step away from it all. Her lyrics about finding some kind of perverse joy in the guessing game, finding it all the more exhilarating when her partner’s good side comes out, are truly evocative. “enough for you” punches even harder on the lyrical front and comes with some of the most raw, unfiltered acoustics here, Rodrigo truly laying her emotions on the line like almost no other artist can. Playing out like a stream of consciousness with some slightly unconventional moments of structure, Rodrigo painstakingly describes the tireless efforts she spent to be more appealing to someone who ended up discarding her easily, fixating on a comment he made about Rodrigo being “never satisfied” and playing the world’s most depressing reverse Uno card. “happier” evokes the image of the crying girl in the corner at a high school prom with its waltz tempo, Rodrigo’s vocals wavering with emotion as she obsesses over her ex’s new girl, upset at herself for pitting women against each other and resolutely wishing them happiness – but not too much.
It would truly be a remarkable achievement for every track on Rodrigo’s album to capture the same lightning in a bottle as her excellent debut single, and tracks “jealousy, jealousy” and “favorite crime” are the only ones where the spark dims slightly. Feeling ever-so-slightly repetitive in themes and sound from some more effective versions earlier on in the tracklist – the former bringing back some eerie distortion and a shouted section and the latter one of the less devastatingly descriptive ballads – Rodrigo’s vocals and lyricism still serve up some surprises and great moments along the way and continue to paint the full picture of her fascinatingly gritty and unembellished mindstate. “hope ur ok” saves one of the biggest tearjerkers for last, serving as Rodrigo’s dedication to childhood friends with parents disapproving of their sexual orientation that she has since drifted apart from. Rodrigo’s vivid lyricism is even better applied to another subject, her good-natured and heartfelt love for her friends and the breathless vocals as she sighs “I miss you” daring the listener to break down in tears before another harmonized bridge brings it all home.
It’s hard not to feel like we’re witnessing a cultural icon with a decades-long career being born right in front of us, the perfect package of a distinct and strong vocal tone, the acting skills to believably pull off fantastic live performances and any emotion on record, and the pen of someone who grew up studying the most poetic Taylor Swift lyrics combining into a new megastar. Buy into all the hype, Olivia Rodrigo is truly something special.
Favourite Tracks: drivers license, good 4 u, happier, hope ur ok, enough for you
Least Favourite Track: brutal