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Kiss with an uppercut: Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘GUTS’

| Friday, September 15, 2023

Christina Sayut | The Observer

First impressions are always important, and in the case of music that’s usually the opening track of an album. As I pressed play on Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album “GUTS” last Friday, I had some idea of what to expect. Quick yet light acoustic guitar and airy vocals were not in line with my expectations for the album, especially for a track titled “all-american bitch.” Fifty-two seconds into the track, though, my first impression of the album as a whole had been made: Olivia Rodrigo is putting a new spin on her old tricks.

This bait-and-switch technique is not at all new for Rodrigo, with her debut album, “SOUR,” having a similar opener: an orchestra leads in before the heavy, grungy guitar takes over and the track begins in earnest. The opening of “GUTS” is similar yet different. It plays with the duality of soft and harder movements — though in both styles Rodrigo’s lyrics are consistently scathing — throughout the whole song, not just the track’s first moments. This is the feeling I had throughout the entire album; it is a clear sign that Rodrigo knows what works for her and is looking to experiment with her successful formula. The question is, does she succeed?

The album as a whole is great, but that is more so on the strengths of the songs individually than how they work as a collective. The voice and style stay close to that of her debut, and that is to her benefit. Returning fans will be pleased with the new material without it being too different from her usual fare, and it establishes Rodrigo’s distinctive voice. That voice is rooted in pop-punk and rock, and extends itself into rap-rock in the tracks “get him back!,” “bad idea, right?” and “ballad of a homeschooled girl.”

Rodrigo’s strengths lie predominantly in her lyrical work, and “GUTS” does nothing but reinforce this notion. Her mid-album ballad “logical” is perhaps the best example of her lyrical prowess. With strings of obviously false realities followed by facts of her relationship, the song’s subject is a devastating punch. As any artist with a large fanbase can demonstrate, Rodrigo’s lyrics have also led to a whirlwind of online speculation towards her interpersonal relationships. One of the album’s later tracks, “the grudge,” has especially caught the attention of Rodrigo’s fanbase in speculation as to who the song’s focus is, detailing a story of a fallen idol and an unpleasant phone call. Whether fan culture obsessiveness is a positive or negative is a discussion for a separate time, but the presence of it at least demonstrates the popularity of Rodrigo’s work.

The album as a whole falls back on its collective parts rather than standing as a whole unit. That being said, these collective parts are incredibly strong on their own. The aforementioned opener “all-american bitch” stands out as one of the album’s best numbers, demonstrating Rodrigo’s range of written and vocal style in a single track. Before the album’s release, two singles were put out: “vampire” and “bad idea, right?” Making these two songs singles proved prudent, as they stand out among the other tracks on the album. However, my personal favorites on the album are “ballad of a homeschooled girl” and “get him back!,” with the former skewing closer to ‘90s punk than modern pop, and the latter being Rodrigo’s aforementioned experimentation with rock-rap, reminiscent of the likes of the Beastie Boys with catchy sung-through choruses and talked-through verses. The album doesn’t necessarily hold up as a collective, but as a package the overall elements stand strong.

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