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Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS review: a stellar graduation from teen-pop sensation

 (PR Handout)
(PR Handout)

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, made her the biggest new pop star since Billie Eilish, earning two worldwide number one singles, three Grammy Awards and four songs on over a billion Spotify streams. So she must have found it hard to lurk at the back of the room doodling when she became the world’s most recognisable uni student in the aftermath.

She only signed up for one class, Poetry at the University of Southern California; not rejecting her sudden teenage superstardom, but trying to find a way to make sure this fickle music thing lasts. Her wise, fiercely vulnerable lyrics were one of Sour’s many strong points, especially on her smash debut single Drivers License, where she depicted herself celebrating newfound vehicular freedom by cruising her ex’s neighbourhood wishing he was in the empty passenger seat.

On the follow-up, she plays with double meanings. It’s called Guts, as in it takes guts to spill ‘em, you see? Her song Get Him Back!, which has a groovy, Beck-like indie-rap shuffle, is about revenge but wanting to rekindle something at the same time. It’s a suitable seam for the 20-year-old to mine, because she spends most of the album tying herself in knots trying to enjoy her blessed youth while simultanously feeling like a lucky fraud who’s terrible at love. On the piano ballad Teenage Dream, she’s fed up of being patronised for her age. On the Eighties-leaning Pretty Isn’t Pretty, she can’t cope with the contorted double standards torturing all women.

She also straddles multiple worlds in her music, managing to sing huge-selling hits in a versatile voice while downplaying a Disney Channel childhood and flirting with indie rock and pop-punk in a way that has earned her some credible fans. A recent New York Times profile quoted St Vincent and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill singing her praises. Jack White wrote her a supportive letter and Elvis Costello said that he felt happy, not litigious, about her song Brutal sounding similar to his Pump It Up.

Guts was made with former emo musician Dan Nigro mostly in his garage studio, which must have helped the loose, relaxed feel when the guitars get fun and fuzzy on the enjoyably self-skewering Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl. It’s an impossible double win to achieve, managing to sound entirely chilled about following up an album that spent an entire year in the US and UK top 10s, while also firing out deft, clever song after song that will surely pin her to pop’s A-list for good.