ABOVE THE CURRENT
By now it seems de rigueur that every Olivia Rodrigo album cycle would entail a minor Taylor Swift–related drama—in the case of GUTS, whisper campaigns alleging that barbarous first single “Vampire” is not-so-secretly a broadside against Swiftian pettiness and narcissism. Whether true or not, these allegations aren’t even the most interesting Swift-related data point when it comes to the 20-year-old songwriter’s second album. Just a few weeks prior to its release, Swift unveiled her own updated version of Speak Now, a record she initially wrote and recorded when she was around Rodrigo’s current age. The re-release caused a minor kerfuffle, particularly over a revised line in “Better Than Revenge” that found Swift toning down her adolescent pettiness in favor of something a bit more genteel.
Call it brand management or simply the fruit of wisdom and maturity, but Swift’s “Revenge” dilemma found her torn between expressions of teenage petulance and grown-up clarity. But one of the impressive things about Rodrigo is how she has it both ways, capturing in crisp, evocative language both the brashness of youth and the steady accumulation of insight and experience. Much of GUTS is concerned with the recognition that she’s simultaneously living through the climax and the denouement of her own coming-of-age story: “I know my age and I act like it,” she sneers on opener “All-American Bitch,” a song that finds her angelically reciting Norman Rockwell domesticities, occasionally shattering her own decorum with torrents of punk rock and profanity (“I got class and integrity, just like a goddamn Kennedy, I swear!”). At the other end of the album comes “Teenage Dream,” a song that peels back the placid exterior of Katy Perry’s permanent adolescence to reveal the monster behind the Winkie’s dumpster, so to speak: “When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise?”
GUTS isn’t just a wiser album than SOUR was; song for song and line for line, it’s also sharper, meaner, funnier, more assured, more pleasurable, and more persuasive that Rodrigo is operating on a plane of her own. She once again worked exclusively with producer Dan Nigro, eschewing the committee approach taken by so many pop records in 2023. Keeping her circle of collaborators so small ensures a consistency of sound, a spirit of spontaneity, and a coalescence around Rorrigo’s strengths: GUTS is stacked with spiky rock and roll tunes, prickly piano-based confessionals, and the occasional callback to Rodrigo’s apprenticeship in musical theater.
Much of it was tracked with a live band in Nigro’s home studio, lending a credible garage-rock (or at the very least mall-rock) energy to the upbeat numbers. For those who are open to taking teenage pop seriously but also have a preference for music made with “real instruments,” Rodrigo is the singular center of the Venn diagram; there’s considerable delight in imagining that she has single-handedly introduced an entire generation to guitar-based music, an achievement that’s helped her win famous fans like Jack White and Kathleen Hanna. Even the album’s tight 39-minute runtime feels appealingly anachronistic: GUTS is very much an album with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, not a malleable playlist or an unfocused data dump.
One thing Rodrigo and Swift do share in common is that compared to their contemporaries, both have generally seemed reluctant to adopt the influence of hip-hop, at least overtly (Swift’s Ice Spice remix notwithstanding). On GUTS, the influence is present in subtle ways: in the singer’s affinity for casual cussing, deployed to hilarious effect, and in the occasional gesture toward ’90s-era cadences, most notably on “Get Him Back!,” an uproarious pileup of come-ons and revenge fantasies that grooves to a laconic rap-rock ramble straight out of Odelay. The song erupts into a chanted schoolyard chorus that’s going to go over like gangbusters the next time Rodrigo joins Billy Joel at the Garden.
“Get Him Back!” is emblematic of the GUTS aesthetic in more ways than one. Its rowdy guitar heroics are echoed throughout the album: in the alt-rock radio vibes of “Bad Idea Right?,” equal parts Garbage and Sheryl Crow, and in the din of the thrashing, hilariously titled “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl.” These songs feel brasher, rowdier, more lived-in even than previous rockers like “Good for You” and “Deja Vu,” and she’s never recorded anything more irresistibly fun than the unhinged new wave number “Love Is Embarrassing.”
But “Get Him Back!” also reflects her acuity for capturing emotional complexity and internal contradiction with uncommon precision—Zach Bryan, Jason Isbell, and Lana Del Rey would all be so lucky as to write something as perfectly ambivalent, as evocatively at-war-with-itself as “The Grudge,” wherein Rodrigo would be perfectly happy reconciling or enacting revenge upon the person who wronged her, whichever comes easiest. “Bad Idea Right?” is about sleeping with an ex against all your better judgment, but it’s also about being and doing the things you hate, a sentiment at least as old as Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
A former Disney star, Rodrigo has a knack for turning everyday embarrassments and indignities into high drama, a skill that renders GUTS winsomely theatrical and charismatic. “Homeschooled Girl” is cringe comedy of the highest order, painted in broad strokes but enlivened by funny details (such as Rodrigo Google-searching “how to start a conversation”). And “Vampire” shifts from plaintive piano ballad to ferocious disco thumper to deranged Broadway showstopper, its lyrics a firehose of recrimination against someone Rodrigo christens a “fame fucker.” Again, the devil’s in the details: The song’s Bat Out of Hell grandiosity works because of her withering facility with language.
Yet what gives GUTS its depth and its richness is how Rodrigo is just as apt to turn that ruthless scrutiny in on herself: “Making the Bed” is an unexpectedly candid expression of ownership and responsibility over personal decisions, while “The Grudge” surveys the distance between good intentions and the willingness to see them through (“It takes strength to forgive, but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet”). Such expressions of personal culpability are all the more moving when you consider the extent to which Rodrigo’s sudden fame has made her a spokesperson for an entire generation, a mantle she seems to be handling about as graciously as could be expected. “All-American Bitch” opens the album with a note of solidarity with women everywhere, but the bookending “Teenage Dream” zeros in on the specific dilemma faced by the young: “When does wide-eyed affection and all good intentions start to not be enough?”
Maybe she doesn’t want to hear this, but just by asking those kinds of questions, she’s proving just how wise a 20-year-old can be.