Released on September 8, GUTS is American singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo’s highly anticipated follow-up to her debut album, SOUR, which was released in 2021 to immense commercial success. Written and produced by Rodrigo and Dan Nigro, GUTS examines the artist’s tumultuous transition into early adulthood amidst sudden stardom. 

With SOUR, Rodrigo assumed the position of a spokesperson for teenagers, writing songs about the quintessential experiences of her teenage years. From relationship turmoil to the titular driver’s license of her hit debut single, Rodrigo’s relatable lyrics as well as her generally easy-to-listen melodies firmly established her status as a pop star. 

In many ways, GUTS functions as a continuation of SOUR. Her lyricism, such as in the melancholic “Making the bed,” transitions from the experiences of her teenage years to those of adulthood. The album’s opening track “all-American b*tch” begins with familiar melodious vocals, reminiscent of the evocative tunes of songs like “traitor” and “deja vu.” And like SOUR, purple remains the dominant thematic color on the album cover and in promotional materials. 

Yet after two years, at twenty years old, Rodrigo no longer inhabits the world of teenagers. Whereas on SOUR she was content to follow a familiar pop formula, on GUTS, Rodrigo expands the bounds of her artistry, incorporating aspects of 2000s rock music. Just as the opening melody of “all american b*tch” sets in, her smooth, gentle vocals break into an explosive, more abrasive rock chorus and instrumentation. Indeed, with its guitar riffs and drum beats, GUTS fits firmly in the realm of pop rock. 

Lyrically as well, Rodrigo expands her scope. Beneath all the lamentations of her struggles as a young adult, she makes keen observations and caricatures of broader society, from the restrictions of social norms to the pursuit of meaningful relationships. On “the grudge,” over a slow, melodic piano melody, Rodrigo analyzes her emotional conflict in a manipulative relationship, concluding the song with the resolution: “it takes strength to forgive.” 

Particularly with the piano ballads like “the grudge” and the lead single “vampire,” Rodrigo showcases her impressive vocal ability. Amidst the emotionally-charged crescendos of the songs’ tensest moments, her voice conveys a sad, touching fragility. If nothing else, GUTS is a compelling display of Rodrigo’s mastery in conveying emotion in her vocal performance. In fact, almost in spite of the album’s outsized rock influence, it is the touching sorrow of her ballads that is the highlight of the album. Oftentimes in art there can be a fine line between innovative poignancy and insufferable banality. On GUTS, Rodrigo toes that line. 

No song better exemplifies this than the equally confusing and compelling “bad idea right?”. With almost comical lyrics caricaturing the myopia of teenage relationships, Rodrigo creates the semblance of an absurd satire, yet in the context of her history as a songwriter of breakup songs manifold, the song only leaves the listener questioning. Moreover, instead of singing, Rodrigo opts to experiment with rap rock, creating a cacophonic din of monotonous fast-talking and harsh instrumentation. 

Certainly, GUTS is commendable for its authentic voice and unabashed self-reflection, but at a musical and lyrical level, it often falls utterly flat. Its production is no more exceptional than any generic pop rock, pop punk, singer-songwriter music. And while certainly a deviation from SOUR, it cannot be said that GUTS represents some form of musical innovation. Everything in the album has been done before and done better. 

This sort of artistic routineness is epitomized in songs like “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” an uncreative take on punk rock contemplating social anxiety with such enrapturing lyrics as “every guy I like is gay.” Even when compared to her past songwriting, the album suffers from a lack of lyrical deftness and wit. 

Of course, this is not to say that the album is irredeemable. GUTS’ closing track “teenage dream” is Rodrigo at her best: an enchanting piano ballad with a haunting vocal performance and meaningful, introspective lyrics reflecting on her maturity as she leaves her teenage years. 

Though GUTS is an improvement from SOUR, Rodrigo still fails to sufficiently develop the musical and thematic depth necessary to differentiate her music from the field in a genre as oversaturated and inconstant as pop. Yet in the end, one thing remains undeniable: Rodrigo is a pop icon and will remain so for years to come.

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