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Review: “GUTS” by Olivia Rodrigo

Rodrigo follows up her 2021 smash-hit “SOUR” with an album that continues to hearken back to the alt-rock heroes of the 1990s and 2000s.
Image by Morgan La Casse
The singer’s second album came out earlier this month.

Two years after ruling 2021’s pop landscape with her debut LP “Sour,” Olivia Rodrigo, the defining rockstar of the 2020s so far, has returned this September with an even stronger sophomore album in “GUTS.”

After many years of articles stating that “rock is dead,” by now it is abundantly clear Rodrigo is the artist who has brought rock back to mainstream music. Re-invigorating the rock genre for the 2020s, Rodrigo became the closest thing mainstream music has to a rockstar with her energetic singles “good 4 u” and “brutal” dominating the airwaves. By blending ‘90s alt-rock influences and her admiration of Taylor Swift’s songwriting, Rodrigo is pushing forward a style of rock topped off with lyrical bluntness.

On “GUTS,” Rodrigo does not display a drastic shift in songwriting style but rather delves deeper into ‘90s alt-rock sounds that draw comparisons to influential female-fronted groups like The Breeders and Hole (the former of which are opening for Rodrigo on select tour dates next year).

Fifth in the tracklist is “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” a track that is strikingly similar-sounding to the work of The Breeders singer-songwriter Kim Deal once again. The resemblance in this song, however, is more so the thumping, whimsical bassline that feels adjacent to Pixies’ “Gigantic,” which Deal notably sang and played bass on before forming The Breeders. Again, Rodrigo channels Swift in her vocal delivery towards the end of the chorus with the line “wanna curl up and die, It’s social suicide.”

While it is certainly a lot of fun to see the music of the ‘90s make a comeback in mainstream pop, Rodrigo shows a lot of room for growth musically on this album. While the album is quite good, it could be made more exciting if Rodrigo were to experiment and expand upon these influences and create something more original — something that would be essential if she plans to reach for the iconic mega-star heights and cross-generational appeal of an artist like Swift.

One frustrating part of Rodrigo’s 2021 debut album “SOUR” carries over onto her second LP “GUTS” — just about all of the lyrics seem to be alluding to the same person, the same relationship, the same break-up, etc. Musicality aside, Rodrigo would make a much more compelling album lyrically had she diversified the lyrical subject matter, even just a little bit.

Still, Rodrigo starts off strong on “GUTS” with the deliberately rock-n-roll titled “all-american bitch.” The track opens with an arpeggiated acoustic guitar chord progression before blowing up into an electric guitar-backed Courtney Love-style chorus with a powerful, yet slacker-y, vocal delivery. Rodrigo channels the Hole singer’s iconic style as she draggingly sings “with perfect all-American lips and perfect all-American hips.” The song “all-american bitch” is the perfect synthesis of Swiftian songwriting combined with grungy electric guitars and anthemic choruses, proving to be a winning combination that Rodrigo has improved upon with this stellar album opener.

Second in the tracklist is “bad idea right?” the second single released from “GUTS,” which features Rodrigo delivering the story of her regretfully being swept into sleeping with an ex-partner. Rodrigo is incredibly nonchalant and casual as she performs the lyrics to the verses in this track, giving off the feeling of a friend recounting the story to you personally, “Now I’m gettin’ in the car, wreckin’ all my plans. I know I should stop, but I can’t. And I told my friends I was asleep, but I never said where or in whose sheets.”

The vocal production on “bad idea right?” stands out on the second pre-chorus, with Rodrigo’s intermittent “ah” vocals adding a modern edge to a track that also feels similar to the dance-punk of a ‘90s act like Le Tigre.

Capping off the three opening tracks, (the triad being the three singles released ahead of the album) is the chart-topping ballad “vampire.” The decision to release this song as the first single is reminiscent of that of “drivers license” off of “SOUR.” The single “vampire” acts as a piano ballad on an album that is heavily rock-influenced — while also managing to skyrocket to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. However, “vampire” is several steps above the musically monotonous ballads that bogged down “SOUR.” While “drivers license” is one of the better ballads off “SOUR,” “vampire” exemplifies Rodrigo becoming a more skillful writer by creating a more satisfying ballad.

“Vampire” shows Rodrigo’s growth in writing ballads by getting more intense in the second half of the song, climaxing into an electronic-rock bridge with rapid-fire lyrical delivery “You said it was true love, but wouldn’t that be hard? You can’t love anyone ’cause that would mean you had a heart. I tried to help you out, now I know that I can’t. ‘Cause how you think’s the kind of thing I’ll never understand.”

Moving away from the influence of the ‘90s, eighth in the tracklist is “get him back!” an extremely 2000s pop-rock-styled chorus. While an extremely catchy earworm, it does not sound wholly original as this song could have easily been a chart-topper in 2007 — in some ways conforming to the pop standards of that time as opposed to pushing pop-rock as a genre forward.

With much stronger ballads and more of the same witty ‘90s alternative-influenced bangers, Rodrigo has subverted the sophomore slump with “GUTS.” Despite leaving quite a bit of room for musical progression and lyrical diversification, it is a remarkable rock record.

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