“I want it to be, like, messy.”
That’s the opening line of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour.” It’s almost inaudible, hidden behind the production, but the little offhand comment pretty much sums up the entire album. In “Sour,” Rodrigo has poured every single ounce of her breakup blues and anger into an album that is as beautiful as it is chaotic. Leave it to a teenager to create a case study in teenage heartbreak that feels like the real thing, all the melodrama, bitterness — and yes, messiness — included.
That lyric above? You can find it in “Brutal,” the album’s opener. Rodrigo is talking about the song’s thrashing guitar rift, lifted straight from the 90s, that rockets Rodrigo along as she bestows us with line after line of pure, unironic generational woes. What other artist in the music industry is going to throw “Who am I if not exploited” and “And I’m not cool, and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park” in the same song? The song is incredibly messy, but that’s the point – the messy sound and messy lyrics make for a slick introduction to a purposely messy album about a messy breakup.
Using diverse, incohesive tracklists for breakup albums is not a new idea — Rodrigo’s idol and biggest influence, Taylor Swift, did it on her own breakup album in 2012 with “Red.” There, Swift used pop, country, electronic and rock to encompass the full spectrum of emotions following a heartbreak. On “Sour,” Rodrigo instead emulates the bedroom pop of the 2010s, early-to-mid-aughts pop punk, and 1990s alt-rock to effectively do the same thing. While she didn’t invent the concept, what makes “Sour” so impressive is that it’s Rodrigo’s debut album – it took Swift four tries for one of her albums to showcase the same versatility Rodrigo shows in her first eleven songs.
Take “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U,” Rodrigo’s two number-one Billboard Hot 100 hits. The former is aesthetic, ethereal and magnetic, a monument to Lorde and her continued stranglehold on pop music. The latter is explosive and furious, providing proof that the 20-year cycle is making punk mainstream again. The pair couldn’t be more different in their sounds or their emotions, yet here they are, one artist’s two biggest hits, separated on the tracklist by two songs on a single album.
If “Sour” is all over the place, then that begs the question: what keeps the album from spiralling out of control in the hands of a teenager making her first album? Well, if “Sour” isn’t cohesive and doesn’t even try to balance itself emotionally, then it has to be Rodrigo’s laser-focused songwriting that efficiently obliterates the album’s antagonist, some dude not worth naming, for all the pain and anguish he caused her. Either she’s dragging him for moving on in only two weeks (“Traitor”), being an impossibly unoriginal boyfriend (“Deja Vu”) or treating her cruelly and unpredictably (“1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back”). Even when he isn’t the focus of the song, like in bookends “Brutal” and “Hope Ur Ok,” he’s always lurking in the background, an ever-present threat to Rodrigo’s potential happiness.
Rodrigo’s songwriting and sound on “Sour” is impressive in and of itself. She has nearly mastered the heartbreak song at the ripe age of 18, and yet her biggest potential lies in her eye (and ear!) for detail, both inside and out of her songwriting. Rodrigo goes above and beyond to fill the album with small, little moments that give the album a real sense of personality. For example, look at the titles for “Good 4 U” and “Enough For You,” right next to each other on the tracklist. Rodrigo gives the 2000s-inspired song the abbreviation treatment, as if pointing a neon arrow towards its Y2K inspiration. In contrast, using the “proper” spelling in the title of acoustic ballad “Enough For You” feels like a statement on the song’s emotional gravitas. It is impossibly easy to smack the same stylistic choices on every title, but a track-by-track analysis demonstrates the intelligence and meticulous thoughtfulness with which Rodrigo curated the project.
Those little details also provide glimmers of humor in the midst of an otherwise very bitter album – buried in the production of “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” is an interpolation of “New Year’s Day,” one of Taylor Swift’s most romantic songs from one of her most romantic albums. It isn’t an accident that Rodrigo combined the sweet and the sour – she could probably recite Swift’s entire discography from memory, and there are plenty of other choices that could’ve worked. It’s funny, just a little ironic and it allows Rodrigo’s biggest fans to feel like they’re included in an inside joke with her.
If there’s one thing that “Sour” proves, it’s that Olivia Rodrigo is here to stay. So many one-hit-wonders fail trying to copy their initial success, and while I would gladly stream an entire album of just the bridge from “Drivers License,” there is nothing more satisfying than an artist taking risks that pay off. As long as she isn’t parallel parking, there probably isn’t anything that Rodrigo can do wrong.
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