Between the dynamic tracks of pop-punk that make listeners scream and the gentle ballads that allow them to leave their past behind, Olivia Rodrigo shines in her sophomore album, “GUTS,” released on Sept. 8.
Rodrigo, who became best known for her sensational debut album “SOUR” in 2021, collaborated with musician and record producer Dan Nigro once more for her second project. “SOUR” won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2022.
“GUTS” debuted with over 60 million streams on Global Spotify on its first day, making it the 10th biggest female album debut in history. The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter brings forth a newfound sense of independence while maintaining her notable levels of vulnerability.
“I just like the word [guts]. I think it has so many different meanings,” Rodrigo said in an interview with the TODAY Show. “It can mean courage. It can mean, you know, trust in your gut. It means intuition. It can mean spilling your guts, which is telling everyone all your secrets, which I feel like is just what my albums are anyway.”
The 39-minute album kicks off with two traditionally pop-punk tracks that capture the essence of a 2000s teen film. The opening track, “all-american b****,” begins with a graceful, serene guitar strumming in the first verse before turning into a pop-rock anthem that delves into the contradictions and ineffective societal expectations placed on women in American society. Inspired by the last chapter of “The White Album,” a book of essays published by American author Joan Didion in 1979, the song explores emotional topics surrounding the true meaning of womanhood constrained by unattainable ideals. Rodrigo asserts her self-confidence in the song, claiming that she does feel like a perfect American girl.
The second song “bad idea right?” revolves around Rodrigo lying to her friends about reuniting with her ex-boyfriend at a party. The song exudes “major ‘90s pop rock energy,” while encapsulating the emotional highs and lows of attempting to rekindle an old flame. Despite receiving praise, the song occasionally falls flat compared to other punk tracks on the album. Due to the undeveloped lyrics and overall over-used lyrical premise, “bad idea, right?” is a song that is very easy to skip.
In contrast to these edgier, rage-filled tracks, the album’s lead single, “vampire,” returns Rodrigo to an almost ethereal yet eerie balladic atmosphere. The goth-pop tune features energetic production and emotionally charged vocals to depict an unknown lover who manipulated and used her. “vampire” refers to this person as someone who sucks the life out of her, leaving her emotionally drained. In typical Rodrigo fashion, the song dives into themes such as self-discovery and independence, rightfully earning it critical acclaim.
The following two tracks completely differ from one another in tone, context and musical production. “lacy,” one of the more stripped-down tracks on the album, employs evocative lyricism to describe the complex coexistence between envy and attraction in this guitar-driven song. Much like the lyrical themes explored in “jealousy, jealousy,” the song delves into envy and, of course, jealousy, with the overall premise remaining consistent, but this time in a slow ballad where she expresses her feelings through a character named “Lacy.” On the other hand, “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is a garage-rock song where Rodrigo delves into the struggles of trying to “fit in,” which she describes as “social suicide.”
Deviating from the album’s pop-punk sound, Rodrigo showcases her raw vulnerability in a handful of courageous, heart-wrenching tracks. The melancholic “making the bed” is a self-deprecating ballad reminiscent of a Gracie Abrams song. Rodrigo’s airy vocals and introspective songwriting feature a brief synth in the post-chorus. A remarkable but sad song that has quickly become a fan-favorite, it finishes with a stripped-down version of the chorus in a slow, ghostly conclusion.
“logical” and “the grudge” are both dynamic power ballads, a signature musical style for Rodrigo. Both use her whisper-like vocals to convey reflective sentiments about emotional turmoil and manipulation, but the former is far too reminiscent of “enough for you” from “SOUR,” both lyrically and sonically, making it feel like a scrap that would have fit better with her melancholic debut album rather than these revenge-filled tracks. However, both are uptempo yet smooth piano-filled songs that are layered with Rodrigo’s hushed vocals.
Shockingly, “get him back!” brightens the album with its crisp production and regretful lyrics. In contrast to the previous pop-punk anthems throughout Rodrigo’s second album, this track blends a metaphorical double-edged sword about revenge and the desire to reunite with an ex-boyfriend. The track manages to capture the conflicting feelings brought about by losing someone who constantly causes pain.
“love is embarrassing” and “pretty isn’t pretty” are both emotionally charged yet upbeat tracks. The former infuses rock, pop and punk sounds and details the rollercoaster ride of emotions and self-discovery within a teenage romantic relationship – a lyrical premise way too similar to “SOUR” which details teenage romance and heartache. This similarity stands out in to the other mature yet edgier songs on “GUTS,” almost giving the impression that it is a backup track from her debut album. The latter track delves into the physical expectations placed on women and the struggle to achieve self-positivity in a world that often seeks perfection.
The album concludes with “teenage dream,” which is a giant hug to all young adults navigating the complexities of growing up, reflecting on the past and overcoming the immense pressures of adulthood. With this heartfelt yet reflective sentiment, she grapples with her rise to stardom, questioning whether she hit her peak at the age of 19. She previously referenced the phrase “teenage dream” in the opening track of “SOUR” titled “brutal.” As a result, Rodrigo’s emotional lyricism, vocal abilities and relatability shine through in this track, making the album’s conclusion somber yet ethereal.
Overall, “GUTS” is an intensely raw and cleverly-crafted album that explores themes of growing up, self-discovery and moving forward. Although some tracks sound like discarded songs from her debut album with little musical growth, this witty 12-track album is the singer’s most honest work to date. Each track on the album encapsulates the different sides of the pop, rock and punk genres with a melancholic touch. With her intimate and poignant songwriting that made her shine before, Rodrigo continues to push the boundaries of 21st-century pop while cementing her punk-rock sound.