Two years after an incredible debut that catapulted her to international fame, SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo is back with its aptly titled follow-up, GUTS. It’s an eclectic, explosive collection wrought with contradictions, a broadly indie pop album pulling from riot girl bands, American rockstars, folk princesses and Y2K summer sounds. The much more upbeat and inventive older sister to SOUR, GUTS dives deep into a much wider array of topics than just romance. This time around, it’s about all of the bloody experiences that shape young adulthood, a rollercoaster of emotions that packs a million punches into forty breakneck minutes.
GUTS’ complications are exemplified in the perfect introduction, ‘all-american bitch’. Flitting between light acoustics and raging, distorted rock, it immediately introduces the album’s prominent sense of humour. Lyrical references to Justin Timberlake, Gorillaz, and Marilyn Monroe, shout-outs to the iconic Kennedy family, and sonic nods to plus pulling from the nation’s top girl bands like Hole and Bikini Kill make this one a feminist hit for the ages. It’s followed by the one-two punch of singles ‘bad idea, right?’ and ‘vampire’. This combo makes for a gut wrenching story of young lust in “forbidden paradise”, from the thrill of doing something you know is wrong for you, to an aftermath as gorey as a Halloween horror.
Standout track ‘lacy’ comments on someone both friend and foe. Its story could be celebrity obsession, a sapphic crush, uncomfortably close friendship, all or none of the above. Superfans will likely draw an unavoidable conclusion on who this song is about, in its description of a woman with “skin like puff pastry” and made of “angel dust” who Olivia both worships and despises, but ‘lacy’ is in fact made so magical by its lack of clear subject. Sonically similar, ‘pretty isn’t pretty’ is this album’s answer to SOUR’s ‘jealousy, jealousy’. The song explores the realities of existing in a modern world obsessed with beauty and social media lifestyles. It recollects the current indie pop of acts like Clairo and beabadoobee, but blends it with instrumental 90s nostalgia like Oasis and Natalie Imbruglia, with chugging guitars and relaxed drums that craft something stunningly bittersweet.
‘ballad of a home-schooled girl’ exemplifies Olivia Rodrigo as the bratty teenager persona she’s established for herself. This is an anthem that would feel right at home in classic teen romps like Jawbreaker and Mean Girls. Even our it-girl of today confesses to feeling the pressures of “social suicide” every day, listing off high-school mistakes that will only follow her for a few short years, but she melodramatically imagines will destroy her entire life. “Thought your mom was your wife, called you the wrong name twice, can’t think of a third line”, Olivia whines, before collapsing into hilarious wordless melodies. ‘Ballad of a home-schooled girl’ closes with a dejected groan that perfectly summarises the struggle of the titular character forging her way in the world.
Furthering this chaotic sound is ‘get him back!’, an inevitable hit which fully commits to the wry spoken-word style ‘bad idea right?’ initially toyed with. Every line is the perfect Gen-Z quip. “He’s gonna love me and hate me at the same time”, Rodrigo smirks, over huge warped synths and screaming vocals buried deep in the mix. Witty references to guys lying about their height, partners love bombing by dropping money, and Olivia’s birth into a family of therapists have ‘get him back!’ walking the perfect line between satire and sincerity. Plus, that chanted chorus is utterly inescapable, designed ideally to belt out at the bound-to-happen GUTS tour.
The ballad-heavy middle of the album tackles fame and personal identity in appropriately emotional fashion. Sorrowful number ‘making the bed’ opens delicately but soon flourishes with harsh electric guitars, as Rodrigo recounts nightmares of crashing her car and lovers treating her like a “tourist attraction”, but admits she’s set herself up for this by chasing her musical dreams. Despite tackling a thoroughly unrelatable topic, Olivia’s lyricism casts an impressively wide net that still cuts deep to the heart for those suffering through varied social situations. The more dejected parallels to earlier track ‘vampire’ are ‘logical’ and ‘the grudge’, all about gaslighting at the hands of a lover. Both songs are reminiscent of Olivia’s break-out single ‘driver’s license’, bearing sweeping melodies and bridge switch-ups that deliver some of the most striking lyricism of her career so far. As with all ballads, these ones blossom like Olivia’s mentioned “flower filled with vitriol”, made better as each listen reveals more depth.
Later down the line, ‘love is embarrassing!’ picks up this theme of the dramas of love from a more lighthearted angle. Comically, Rodrigo admits to “damn near start(ing) World War III” with her response to an ex getting with a new lookalike partner, on 2021’s ‘deja vu’. This clear reference to the public love triangle of days gone by between Rodrigo, Sabrina Carpenter and Joshua Bassett further employs a tongue-in-cheek comedic tone that shows her growth over the past few years.
After one listen to this project, the reasoning behind its title is blatantly clear. The sonic creativity on this record takes huge courage. Olivia has undeniably gorgeous, well-trained vocals, but here, she’s offering up more than just pretty singing, with everything from blood curdling screams to theatrical line recitation. The lyrics are even more of a diary reveal than SOUR. Rodrigo explores increasingly mature topics from body image to sexuality, speaking to the terrifying world of first experiences with alcohol, parties and hook-ups with an impressively honest tone. The tracklist order is wild and chaotic, giving you whiplash from sad break-up songs to acid-trip punk. She’s unafraid to find order in the mess, representative of the exact youthful world she’s living in. Indeed, Olivia Rodrigo has guts.
But it’s the closing moments of this record that best dissect the fear of growing up at the project’s core. ‘teenage dream’ revolves around the terror of age stealing away the qualities that make us our best selves. “They all say that it gets better, but what if I don’t?” Olivia wails, a statement that summarises that inescapable pain of growing up. But in the wake of this record, it’s also a fear that proves unfounded. With a sophomore album as jaw-dropping as GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo once again showcases that for an artist of her talent, the only way is up.