Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Pop | Pop Punk
With her debut single ‘Drivers License’, Olivia Rodrigo shot into the stratosphere faster that any other act I can think of. It’s like one day she was a C-tier Disney star, ironically on a show that only people who aren’t old enough to have their driver’s license yet would have ever heard of, and the next she was smashing streaming records as an almost universally loved household name. My grasp on the concept of time was already on the ropes from over a year stuck at home doing nothing, but the idea of an artist going from a debut single as a relative nobody, to releasing one of the most critically acclaimed and widely talked about albums of the year in less than six months has properly wrinkled my brain.
Just as exciting and surprising as the unparalleled speed of her rise to the top is the fact that it feels thoroughly deserved and justified. Making the move from the House of Mouse to being a serious artist, especially at such a young age, comes with a lot of stigma and expectations. You imagine the end result being something about as over-produced as humanly possible, bland and inoffensive to a fault, developed in a boardroom as a marketing product with little trace of heart or artistry, and with the artist in question having very little voice of their own as a small cog in a big machine. With Sour, Olivia dances around every potential pitfall with ease. Right from the first few seconds of opening track ‘Brutal’ the album starts to defy expectations. After a short snippet of studio chatter saying “I want it to be, like, messy…” it immediately delivers on that promise with an abrasive off-kilter riff and a stream of consciousness lyrical style that reminds me of Courtney Barnett’s ‘Pedestrian At Best‘ of all things. This in-your-face rocker, with lines like “who am I if not exploited?” and “where’s my fucking teenage dream?”, feels a world away from the gorgeous break-up balladry of her breakthrough hit.
The record’s edgier moments don’t just feel contrarian for the sake of it either; it’s not some calculated push back from someone trying to distance themselves from the Disney stereotypes. Everything Olivia offers up on this record is full of authenticity and conviction. Her songwriting always feels personal and heartfelt, with some Swiftian self-referential moments thrown in for good measure, and her impressively versatile vocals ensure that for every left turn this surprisingly eclectic album takes, she manages to hit the mark perfectly. From the elegant waltz of ‘Happier’ and the stripped back acoustic folk of ‘Favourite Crime’, to the lush bedroom pop of ‘Deja Vu’ and the fiery pop punk of album highlight ‘Good 4 U’, Olivia never truly falters in her wide ranging ambitions. You really get a sense of her pulling from, and paying homage to, a wide range of influences (with a love of Billy Joel referenced on ‘Deja Vu’ hammering the point home).
Originally conceived as an EP, but fleshed out to a full album to ride the wave of hype from ‘Drivers License’, Sour as a result feels concise and focused. It never stumbles over filler tracks or runs out of steam. What’s more, with a unifying central theme of teenage heartbreak running through the record, the eclectic mix of tracks feel as though they belong together thanks to the common ground they share, rather than being a jumbled hodgepodge. It’s easy for a break-up album to fall into being too morose, bitter and alienating, especially for inexperienced songwriters, but here Olivia offers a shining example of how to do it right. The track list plays like the various stages of grief following a broken heart, with each song expressing a different emotion and approaching the same issue from a different angle, whether that’s through the lens of hurt, anger, longing, regret etc. As a teenager all your emotions burn at their brightest, and no broken heart will feel quite so potent as the first, but I’m sure many of us at the time would have struggled immensely to properly express the feeling. Olivia never sugar-coats the emotion in her vocals, you can hear her passion as though the wounds are still fresh, but her articulate lyricism has more the wisdom of someone who’s taken the time needed to ponder and process it all, in essence giving the listener the best of both worlds.
Everything has seemingly lined up to make this into an exemplary pop record. The songwriting is especially brilliant for an artist so young and inexperienced, and the production knows just when to build things up and when to take a step back. It’s honestly hard to fault it as it often manages to turn what few weaknesses it has into strengths. Each fleeting moment that feels a little rough around the edges adds to it’s authenticity, and you can forgive the few passages where it lingers a tad too long in angst and drama as they feel fitting in an album about teenage heartbreak (and quite frankly earned in one done this well). Sour is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, and I get the impression that it will be looked fondly upon in the years to come as an important and influential pop record.