An assured debut from a talented singer and passionate song-writer
‘It’s brutal out here’ asserts Olivia Rodrigo on the opening track of her debut album SOUR, singing of the pressures and the exploitation that come with teenage stardom. It’s a bold statement putting this noisy, punk-flavoured song at the top of the track list but it announces Rodrigo’s commitment to singing honestly and unashamedly from her own teenage perspective. And it’s not always an easy perspective to inhabit. In bitter, scathing vocals, she hisses ‘And I’m so sick of seventeen. / Where’s my fucking teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / “Enjoy your youth,” I’m gonna cry.’
The Disney Channel star cites Taylor Swift and Lorde as major influences, both of whom skyrocketed to fame at similarly young ages. Both Swift’s wistful, heartbroken balladry and Lorde’s disdain for growing up in the modern world seep into Rodrigo’s 11 tracks, and the latter artist in particular informs her vocal delivery throughout.
And if one thing is consistent across the album, it’s the passion and emotion that Rodrigo pours into her singing. In ‘drivers license’, the single that spearheaded her rise to fame as a musician, she showcases the best of her talents, sliding seamlessly from a fragile whisper into a powerful, soaring chorus.
Her song-writing, too, is savvy, demonstrating a Swiftian knack for zooming in on minute details to tell a bigger story. As YouTube critic Todd in the Shadows points out, key to the success of ‘driver’s license’ is the specificity and tangibility of its subject matter1: Rodrigo’s brand new license brings home the reality of a break-up when she realises she won’t be driving around with the person she loves.
The song culminates in a grand, sweeping bridge that echoes the youthful euphoria of songs like Birdy’s ‘Wings’ and Lorde’s ‘Green Light’. But rather than the exhilarating freedom represented by Lorde’s titular traffic signal, Rodrigo meets only ‘red lights, stop signs’ and constant reminders of the past.
There are ample other moments of wit and insight scattered throughout SOUR, from the self-aware bitterness of ‘happier’, to the critical hindsight Rodrigo adopts on ‘favorite crime’. ‘jealousy, jealousy’ sees her condemn the unrealistic beauty standards and unattainable lifestyles promoted by social media influencers and ‘hope ur ok’ makes for a heartfelt conclusion to the album. It’s on the more generic songs that the album falls short. ‘traitor’ and ‘enough for you’ are both sung with plenty of feeling, but they merely add to the album’s supply of melancholic break-up songs, without offering any unique angle of their own.
On the other hand, simplicity is what makes the catchy pop-punk track ‘good 4 u’ such a triumph, capturing the almost gleeful self-indulgence of pure, unbridled resentment. While channelling the rowdiness of Avril Lavigne, Rodrigo and producer Daniel Nigro also garnish the track with glossy vocal harmonies, juxtaposing the coarse with the smooth.
This is one of many deft instrumental touches that nicely complement Rodrigo’s lyrics. The messy, dissonant piano echoes her increasing anxiety on ‘jealousy, jealousy’, while the twinkling introduction to ‘deja vu’ opens the nostalgic song in a dreamy haze of happy memories. Then there’s the tentative stop-and-start piano on ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’. Interpolated from Taylor Swift’s ‘New Year’s Day’, it perfectly mimics the action of stumbling forwards and backwards.
Along with Rodrigo’s sharp lyricism, this varied sonic palette infuses colour into an album that would otherwise feel a little thin and under-baked in places. There is no track even approaching bad but you get the sense not every song received the same care and attention put into ‘drivers license’ or ‘deja vu’.
Despite this, SOUR is an undeniably powerful debut. Rodrigo consolidates the musical styles that have soundtracked adolescence over the last couple decades, from raucous pop punk, to the experimental angst of Lorde, and the quiet intimacy of more recent acts like Phoebe Bridgers, creating an album that speaks candidly to her generation without ever talking down. And so through heartbreak, frustration, regret, self-loathing, and finally, hope, Olivia Rodrigo will be your guide.
Listen to Sour: