Few artists have so effortlessly dominated a year like Olivia Rodrigo has in 2021. The Disney star (Bizaardvark, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) bombarded the charts and the hearts of millions like a tidal wave with her monumental debut single “drivers license.” The devastating ballad debuted at #1 and swiftly became the biggest song of the year so far. Olivia has since followed up the seismic success of “drivers license” with two more Top 10-debuting singles making her the first artist in history to debut their first three proper singles in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. The first of the two, “deja vu,” found Olivia expanding into a more indie-pop influenced sound which launched it to #8. Soon after, Olivia revealed “good 4 u” a sublime slice of pop-rock goodness that found her channeling Paramore and collecting her second #1-debuting single.
Outside of the numbers, Olivia has already proven herself to be an immensely talented and intentional artist; “drivers license” was no fluke. With each of the album’s pre-release singles, her sound transformed to mirror the progression of her emotions concerning the broken relationship that anchors the majority of the songs on the record. Olivia’s debut album, SOUR, is a formidable effort; the album provides more context to the stories and themes explored in the singles, paints a fuller picture of how Olivia channels her various musical influences, and unabashedly dives into the throes of heightened emotion that naturally comes with adolescence.
SOUR is probably the best album title of 2021 so far. Between the title and the music, Olivia has crafted an album that validates the intensity of teenage emotions. Love, jealousy, pride, anger, sadness — whatever the emotion, adolescence, especially in the age of social media, exacerbates the depths of each feeling. No song encapsulates this better than the stellar opening track, “brutal.” In a recent interview with Released, Olivia noted that when “celebrating a major win in life,” she plays Ariana Grande’s “successful.” Like Ariana, Olivia opens her album with a gorgeous string arrangement, but these aren’t the fairytale strings of “shut up.” On “brutal,” Olivia opts for a more haunting take on the grandiosity of strings before launching into heavy Paramore-esque guitars that foreshadow the sound of tracks like “good 4 u.” Along with the closing track, “brutal” is arguably the most important song on SOUR. Although Olivia was able to move away from the “drivers license girl” moniker, the pre-album singles gave the (false) impression that Olivia’s entire musical aesthetic was based on a single bad relationship, namely one rumored to be with fellow HSMTMTS star Joshua Bassett. Olivia writes such gut-wrenching songs because her experiences with relationship are shaped by the overarching experience of being a teenager. With “brutal,” she allows herself to broaden her scope and situate the album in the hurricane that is teenage life. She sings “I’m so insecure, I think/That I’ll die before I drink” and gives us a full-circle pop music moment (hey, Katy Perry!) with the line “And I’m so sick of seventeen/Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” Between the fuzzy vocal production and the winkingly bratty delivery, Olivia is reveling in the kind of pop-punk that’s been missing from the mainstream as of late. There aren’t many sonic moments like this on the album, but wherever they appear is where Olivia shines her brightest.
SOUR showcases a range of emotions, but Olivia favors ballads and mid-tempos to express these feelings which decreases the dynamism of the listening experience. Working in her favor, is the general briefness of these songs; even though there are a lot of ballads, the album’s pacing isn’t completely thrown off because none of the songs overstay their welcome. Furthermore, the sequencing is pitch-perfect; Olivia swiftly moves through the specific plotline of a relationship gone south while also exploring the overarching plot of teenage/high school life. For example, “traitor” is smartly placed between “brutal” and “drivers license” as a sonic and thematic bridge. The track moves away from the brash pop-punk of “brutal” to the more subdued balladry of “drivers license” while also narrowing the scope from teenage years in general to the demise of a romance. Olivia settles on the word “traitor” instead of “cheater” because it only took “two weeks” for her significant other to move on with someone new. Her ex didn’t technically cheat, but the swiftness with which they moved on implies that something funky was happening towards the end of their relationship. On “traitor,” Olivia makes a variety of vocal choices, some of which pay off and some of which do not. Throughout the album, Olivia chooses to enunciate her words in a way that evokes the peak of pop music’s vowel-breaking days. It’s a choice that detracts from her overall vocal performance because it sounds like she’s imitating singers who have less vocal talent than she does. On the other hand, in the chorus of “traitor” she tends to throw away her words mid-belt; it’s an excellent choice that provides a vocal parallel to the way her ex threw away their relationship.
As for the singles, which were excellent as standalone tracks, they fit beautifully in the context of SOUR and its story. With each single there was a clear progression of Olivia moving through the feelings of devastation (“drivers license”), a sort of passive-aggressive moment of reflection (“deja vu”), and a no-holds-barred stage of anger and backhanded well wishes (“good 4 u”). The songs sit right next to each other on the tracklist, but “1 step forward, 3 steps back” separates the “drivers license” and “deja vu.” When “drivers license” dropped, the song drew immediate comparisons to Taylor Swift, one of Olivia’s biggest musical inspirations. It only makes sense that the song to follow “drivers license” on the album would interpolate a Taylor Swift track. Built around an interpolation of the piano melody from reputation’s “New Year’s Day,” Olivia sings of the battles that come with trying to make things work with an inconsistent and unavailable partner. In this way, she provides more context for the events that led to the relationship’s downfall. Moreover, this track’s second verse is straight Taylor Swift, and it works beautifully: “And maybe in some masochistic way/I kind of find it all exciting/Like, which lover will I get today?” In fact, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” foreshadows the section of the album that explains the intricacies of the relationship’s problems even though the track itself is in the midst of a section focusing on how Olivia processed the end of the relationship. It’s a slick moment of sequencing that speaks to how intentional Olivia is.
The back half of SOUR spends its time fleshing out the internal and external pressures that shape Olivia’s emotions before zooming back out into a more general rumination on teenage life. One of the many emotional apexes of the album, “enough for you” is a heartbreaking ballad that paints the uncomfortable picture of building yourself around validation that never ends up coming. With lyrics that recall Fearless era Taylor Swift, Olivia delivers her single most effective vocal performance on “enough for you.” The melody is boring, but with such an expressive vocal (she literally sounds like she’s on the verge of tears at various points) and lines like “Now I don’t want your sympathy/I just want myself back,” the song pulls through as one of the album’s standout numbers. The snide spirit of “good 4 u” returns in “happier,” a less conventional ballad where Olivia balances an eerily familiar piano line and robust strings to proclaim, “I hope you’re happy, but don’t be happier.” Finally, two of the album’s final tracks, “jealousy, jealousy” and “hope ur ok,” broaden the album’s scope to show just how damaging and traumatic adolescence can be. Out of all of the songs on SOUR, “jealousy, jealousy,” in particular, is incredible because it does in one song what the album as a whole seeks to do: it validates the nastiest and darkest teenage emotions. Jealousy, bitterness, insecurity, guilt, self-loathing, and desperation are all soundtracked by a glorious pounding piano. If a single song could epitomize high school, it would be this one. Olivia struck gold with “jealousy, jealousy.” SOUR closes with “hope ur ok,” a devastating ballad that finds Olivia reminiscing on friends that had to survive the worst cruelties from their own families. It brings us back to “brutal,” and confirms that Olivia isn’t necessarily relationship-obsessed; she’s using this romance as a microcosm of adolescence to explore how vibrant and intense emotions are during that time. It’s brilliant, to say the least.
SOUR is a very solid album. There’s ample room for growth, particularly in Olivia’s songwriting. At times her lyrics can feel elementary, but, at the very least, she seems to understand and respect the bridge, so she’s headed down the right track. The album does leave much to be desired in terms of hearing Olivia on more uptempo songs like “good 4 u.” SOUR effectively showcases the breadth of Olivia’s influences (Lorde, Taylor Swift, Paramore, St. Vincent etc.), but, for the most part, she’s already found her sound and what makes her *Olivia Rodrigo*. At times, the album feels repetitive and some of the new tracks struggle in the shadow of the singles. Nevertheless, whether it’s a strong bridge, interesting vocal layers, or a quirky change in song structure, Olivia finds a way to make every song integral to the full album. Any questions about Olivia’s viability as an artist and pop star should have been squashed with the release of “deja vu,” but SOUR should leave those questions six feet under.
Key Tracks: “brutal” | “hope ur ok” | “jealousy, jealousy” | “enough for you” | “deja vu”